Back in July, when NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center began testing a first-of-its kind 3D-printed rocket engine igniter made using a hybrid additive/subtractive manufacturing process, the agency likened the igniter’s production to building a ship inside a bottle. But, of course, when finished, NASA winds up not with an impressive decorative piece for a bookshelf but a with part designed to help launch a rocket into space.
It’s a measure of how far 3D printing has come that at one end of the spectrum you can buy a $160 desktop 3D printer from Toys “R” Us for the STEM-loving kid or hobbyist on your holiday list, and at the other end NASA is testing the robustness of 3D-printed components for space travel. For years, two attitudes toward 3D printing dominated the industrial landscape: one, that 3D printing was little more than an expensive toy for manufacturers, useful for prototyping in a high-volume operation, maybe, but unlikely to make much of an impact on industry as a whole; and two, that additive manufacturing would pull the rug out from under traditional manufacturing, eventually rendering the latter obsolete.
The reality, say those who’ve watched and been active in the industrial 3D printing space for years, is somewhere in the middle. “3D printing is not here to compete with traditional manufacturing; it’s an addition,” says Nora Touré, general manager at 3D printing services and software provider Sculpteo USA and founder of Women in 3D Printing. Or as Majid Babai, advanced manufacturing chief at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and lead on the igniter project, puts it, “Additive manufacturing makes sense where it makes sense, and it doesn’t make sense where it doesn’t make sense.”
But the parameters of where it makes sense are expanding, thanks to new technologies, such as the hybrid additive/subtractive production machine from DMG Mori that built NASA’s new igniter, as well as advances in metal additive manufacturing and a resurgence of interest in testing alternative and potentially more-robust 3D printing materials. As a result, there’s growing confidence within the industrial manufacturing community in the reliability of 3D-printed products and the repeatability of 3D printing processes. In a Sculpteo survey of nearly 1,000 manufacturing professionals at the beginning of this year, 90% of respondents indicated that they consider 3D printing a competitive advantage in their strategy, with acceleration of product development, offering of customized/limited-series parts, and increased production flexibility their top three priorities, respectively, when it comes to 3D printing.
Says Touré: “People are really using 3D printing not only for rapid prototyping anymore but for final product, and that was enabled by the fact that you have more material research, more equipment coming up and more investment in the industry.”
NASA, for its part, has invested about $10 million in 3D printing hardware and machines in the past five years at Marshall and has 13 engineers (both government employees and contractors) working on additive manufacturing at the facility. In a field like aerospace with such small margins for error and potentially catastrophic consequences if a part fails, what gains is NASA looking to realize via its 3D printing research and broadened use of 3D-printed components? Significant ones, actually. The bimetallic printing process that the agency developed and tested with the new rocket engine igniter “could reduce future rocket engine costs by up to a third and manufacturing time by 50 percent,” said Preston Jones, director of the engineering directorate at Marshall, in a NASA news release in September.
Lower production costs and faster, more-flexible, more on-demand production are central to the business case for additive manufacturing. The key to achieving these benefits, though – to making 3D printing efficient and cost-effective in any given organization – is to identify the appropriate applications and use cases for it. Here’s where experts in 3D printing technology say its light shines brightest – and what organizations need to be aware of as they make decisions about where and whether 3D printing makes sense for them.
“Fully new designs”
Additive manufacturing can transform product design, Touré and others say, in part because it allows the ship-in-a-bottle-type approach to production: Today’s 3D printing technologies make it possible to machine intricate structures inside a part while the part is being produced. “The limits of the technologies you’ve been working with so far are changing,” Touré says. “It opens the scope of what you can do in terms of design.”
Karsten Heuser, VP for additive manufacturing for Siemens AG’s machine tool business, echoes the comment. “With additive, the freedom is so large, you can do lattice structures; you can do fully new designs,” he says. Touré cites this capability to machine extremely complex parts that weren’t manufacturable before as the No. 1 reason to adopt 3D printing as a tool for mass production. “It doesn’t mean with 3D printing you don’t have any limits or constraints anymore; of course you do,” she says. “But those constraints are a little more flexible.”
Compelling applications for this additive approach to design and production can be found in the aerospace and automotive sectors. “Where I think it makes a lot of sense is with removing materials and using design to make a part lighter (or) increase fuel economy or fuel efficiency,” says Mike Vasquez, founder of digital manufacturing and 3D printing consultancy 3Degrees.
Stephen Anderson, business manager for additive manufacturing systems at manufacturer and metrology specialist Renishaw offers this example: “If you come up with a design for a lightweight aerospace component, or you want to infill a part with a lattice structure that you simply couldn’t machine...that’s when these technologies really start to play the part.” 3D printing “comes into its own,” he says, “when you can produce parts that you simply cannot manufacture in other ways.”
What’s more, 3D printing can make tweaking or updating a product’s design a lot less cumbersome. This was a key selling point for Tom Hoenig, president of GTI Spindle Technology in Manchester, NH, when his company made the leap in 2014 to having its predictive sensors 3D-printed. “If we have to add a button or we need to make a special order for somebody of 25 that fits a specific application but it basically has the same innards, we can do that on the fly literally immediately,” he says. “Almost every other year we’re making improvements and changes,” Hoenig adds. “This has just been awesome to work with.”
It can also help businesses meet the demands of customers seeking customized, made-to-order products – a trend that has come to the fore in the consumer world and now is permeating into the industrial market. Richard Grylls, one of the first users of the first commercial metal 3D printer available in North America at The Ohio State University back in 1998 and now technical director for SLM Solutions North America, has seen this make-it-for-me interest evolve along with 3D printing technologies.
“In the case of high-end sports cars and luxury vehicles and so on, if you walk into a Rolls-Royce showroom, you don’t normally buy a stock, off-the-shelf Rolls-Royce,” he notes. For SLM, which sells additive manufacturing machines to (among other businesses) automotive companies and startups, 3D printing is a tool for offering mass customization. “If you go buy a Bugatti Chiron, it will actually have 3D-printed parts on it, on the transmission, that were made with SLM machines,” Grylls says. Additive manufacturing tools, he says, “are where you can meet the consumer market in an interesting way.”
From a personnel perspective, the design freedom that additive and hybrid manufacturing systems enable demands creative new approaches to product engineering, Siemens’ Heuser and Sculpteo’s Touré emphasize. “We have a slogan that additive manufacturing changes everything,” Heuser says. “It changes the way your engineers design the product; it changes the way you construct your business model or you set up your manufacturing. ... You need to have people really rethinking how you design your product.” Indeed, success with 3D printing will depend in part on the imagination and flexibility of your design team, Touré suggests. “You have to rethink and disrupt your entire designing and thinking and innovation process,” she says. “You need to hire a team that’s actually able to think out of the box.”
“Time is money”
When an organization needs to get to market, quickly, with not millions of a product but maybe hundreds or hundreds of thousands of an item, 3D printing can offer an efficient solution. “Time is money, so you want to be the first one on the market,” Touré says. “If (your) product is small enough that with 3D printing you’d be able to print it within a few weeks,” you could realize a competitive advantage vs. trying to produce the same product via traditional injection molding, she says.
Babai sees 3D printing together with 3D laser scanning, which allows for reverse-engineering of limited-availability or out-of-production parts, spurring “a dramatic shift in reducing the developmental cycle of parts.” In Sculpteo’s survey of 3D printing users, 34% said they’re using 3D printing for prototyping; 23% said they use it for proof-of-concept; and 22% said they use it in for production – the three most-common applications of additive manufacturing for respondents.
“You can print the part, test it, and based on that, modify your design and make another part and test it again in very quick fashion versus spending a lot of money and a lot of time to be able to make parts the conventional way,” Babai says.
Already, this shift is taking place in markets such as oil and gas, medical devices, and aerospace, says Renishaw’s Anderson. In the past 18 months or so, he says, “We’ve seen a significant upsurge in terms of taking these technologies out of the laboratory and out of the university and even out of prototyping,” he says.
“Produce the part at the location”
As new polymers and metal superalloys come into use and the durability of 3D-printed items improves, 3D printing stands to have a profound impact on the supply chain.
“We see a huge trend with additive manufacturing that you have a kind of delocalized production network,” Heuser says. Being able to take a 3D image file and produce a part on demand, especially for serving remote facilities such as offshore oil platforms, could help reduce inventory and warehouse costs and cut the risk of or mitigate unplanned downtime.
The implications extend to national security. “The fact of the matter is lot of the cost for war-fighting is logistics,” Babai says. “Being able to produce the part at the location instead of shipping items from all around, where you have to have like 10, 20, 50 of every part in different locations throughout the world, (and) instead you just have raw material and are able to make the part as you need it, that’s tremendous cost savings,” he says.
That promise of quick, on-demand part availability holds appeal, too, as manufacturing industry professionals (especially younger workers entering the industry) increasingly are accustomed to Amazon-like turnaround. “It’s really very much a 21st-century technology that resonates with young people,” Grylls says. “If you send me a file right now, I’m sitting at home today; I could work on my computer for about five minutes; I could upload it to the server, and it could be printing out this afternoon.”
Getting it right
The quality of 3D-printed components for industrial use is improving; there’s a heavier focus on investigating and testing new materials for additive manufacturing; and 3D printing equipment itself is becoming more accessible from a user perspective. Still, significant work remains. For researchers, vendors, and end users in the growing 3D printing space, the priority is making the technology work in those select applications that offer a promising return on investment.
“The biggest thing with this industry right now is implementation, getting it right,” says Grylls. “Because if a big company is implementing additive manufacturing, if they make any missteps, it sets it back by years.”
GTI Spindle Technology’s Hoenig, for one, is sold after three years’ experience with 3D printing. “At first I was kind of skeptical, because I was like, ‘I’ve seen 3D-printed components at all these trade shows we go to, and you can still tell they’re 3D-printed.’ And my developer said, ‘No, no, no, the companies that are actually doing this as a service are quite more polished on the final product. ... And when we ran the samples, I was hooked.” He adds: “Most of our customers can’t tell that it’s not a molded product.”
“Once they get it, they get it,” Touré says. “It’s complementary to other manufacturing technologies.”