New frontier: Here's where 3D printing is headed next in industrial manufacturing

As technology and materials advance, additive manufacturing is claiming its space in mass production.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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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.”

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