Additive Manufacturing, implemented as 3D printing, has taken the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) by storm, and rightfully so, for several reasons. 3D printing provides these significant benefits:
- Rapid Prototyping, which shortens the product development cycle, reduces waste, andreduces the time to market.
- Better inventory management and logistics. Products can be printed on demand almost anywhere, and the need to ship products is significantly reduced.
- Additively manufactured tooling reduces manufacturing costs for complex injection molded parts.
- Product customization can be achieved efficiently, with reduced manufacturing costs.
There are still some hurdles to be cleared before 3D printing competes in all areas with traditional manufacturing. Two of these hurdles are:
- To produce 3D printed products with materials which provide adequate structural strength, durability, surface finish, and quality. Thus far, most 3D printed products use plastics.
In order for 3D printing to compete with traditional manufacturing, 3D printed products should also use metals, alloys, ceramics, and composites.
- 3D printing should produce products on a large scale, with production costs which are comparable to traditional manufacturing.
These hurdles are being cleared, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, it may be just a matter of time before many traditional manufacturing methods are replaced by Additive Manufacturing.
At this time, a bridge must be crossed before 3D printing competes with high volume traditional manufacturing. In order to cross this bridge, either the speed of 3D printing should increase significantly, or many 3D printers must be used simultaneously to meet the demands of high volume production. Using many 3D printers simultaneously creates two problems: high energy usage and carbon emissions.
This article tries to answer the question “How well is 3D Printing dealing with Scalability?” by highlighting significant achievements in the 3D printing industry which address scalability.
Has 3D Printing of Non-Plastic Materials Become Achievable?
A key enabler for printing structurally adequate and durable products is the use of layering technology together with Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).
SLS uses powdered materials which melt and solidify quickly when hit with a laser. This technology has made it possible to print metal based products. When the cost of powdered materials (which are based on plastic, metallic, ceramic, or other engineering materials) decrease, it will become more cost effective to use 3D printing and SLS instead of traditional manufacturing.
Because of SLS, a new frontier in 3D printing has emerged. Many manufacturers are now making SLS-enabled 3D printed products which previously, could only be manufactured with traditional methods.
There are other variants of SLS technology such as Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Selective Heat Sintering (SHS), and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) which will make the technology more versatile for 3D printing.
Some 3D printing achievements are worth mentioning:
- GE Aviation has 3D printed fuel nozzles for aircraft engines.
- Boeing has 3D printed about 300 different aircraft parts.
- China Eastern Airlines Co. has used Boeing-licensed technology to make 3D printed aircraft parts such as seats, parts of cabins, and handles.
- Tesla Motors is using 3D printing in their NUMMI facility for mass production.
- Lockheed has used Electron Beam Melting (EBM) to 3D print Air Leak Detect Brackets.
Other notable 3D printing achievements include the following:
- A skull for a Dutch woman was 3D printed in order to relieve deadly pressure on the brain.
- Medical professionals in Ohio printed a splint made from biological materials to save a baby from asphyxiation due to a blocked breathing airway.
- Drums, keyboard and electric guitars have been 3D printed.
How could 3D printing overcome Scalability Issues?
Traditional manufacturing stocks large and costly inventories of materials and supplies in case it is necessary to ramp up production quickly in order to meet product demand. Currently, 3D printing cannot compete with traditional manufacturing with regard to high volume production demands for several reasons:
- Because 3D printers operate at slow speeds, many 3D printers will be required for simultaneous printing in order to satisfy high volume demands.
- Using several 3D printers simultaneously for large volume production will consume an exorbitant amount of energy, and will produceunacceptable levels of carbon emissions.
- It will not be cost effective to stock required amounts of ink for high volume 3D printing.
- Certain high volume products, such as 12-ounce aluminum cans or plastic cups (which are produced by the millions) will not be economically feasible for 3D printing.
In spite of these limitations on scalability, certain achievements deserve mention.
- A 20-foot tall custom 3D printer is building a house along the canal in Amsterdam, and the building is expected to be completed in 2015. The printing ink is formulated with sustainable materials, and it is ecofriendly. Perhaps the construction of a customized 3D printer as well as the printing ink could be a key enabler for scalability.
- In Shangai, the company Winsun erected 10 3D-printed houses, each costing a mere $4,800, in less than 24 hours. The custom-made 3D printer is 150 meters long, 10 meters wide, and 6.6 meters high. Each house covers an area of 200 square meters. The printing ink was formulated from recycled and industrial waste materials into structural concrete. Furthermore, Winsun used 3D printing to create a 5-story apartment building which covers an area of 1,100 square meters. Once again, the construction of a customized 3D printer together with the printing ink could be a key enabler for scalability.
Additive Manufacturing holds promise as a disruptive technology which could replace many forms of traditional manufacturing.
Scalability is an issue which must be overcome, if 3D printing is to compete with traditional manufacturing. Problems which should be solved to deal with scalability include:
- Slow printing speeds,
- High energy usage and carbon emissions, and
- Availability of printing inks for high volume production.
It appears that two enablers that could improve scalability are:
- Customization of 3D printers to deal with high volume production, and
- Customization of printing inks which are functional, cost effective and eco-friendly.
Additive Manufacturing will probably replace many forms of traditional manufacturing, but not completely.