The next dimension in manufacturing

Tuesday May 14, 2013
Written by Tania MacWilliam
Resistance is futile. 3D printing is here to stay. And if you want to reap the benefits, like reducing production costs, time and waste, it would be wise to welcome this technology with open arms. 3D printing isn’t a new technology. It’s been around as long as the Internet. But it’s been garnering more media attention in the last couple of years thanks to expanding technology. The equipment has become more affordable, efficient and accessible, making it an intriguing option for progressive manufacturers. The idea of printing a replacement toothbrush from a desktop machine could entice home users to invest in their very own 3D printer. But hobbyist use isn’t what’s getting all the attention. Industry experts think 3D printing could revolutionize the manufacturing industry. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing uses design information from a CAD file to build up a solid object, layer-by-layer, using plastics or powders. There are many processes that can be used to print materials made from metals, glass and even bio-materials, but the most well known process of fabrication is called fuse deposition modelling (FDM). This process uses a heated nozzle that deposits fine layers of plastic on a build platform. From a simple aircraft bracket to a complex organ to replace a failing one, the possibilities for 3D printing are endless. And there are unique processes used to produce this wide array of products. One 3D printer manufacturer, Stratasys, offers three types machines, using three different printing technologies. The first is Solidscape technology, which uses wax to make patterns and is often used in the dental and jewellery industry. The next is PolyJet technology, which employs an inkjet process to create objects from fine layers of photopolymers while simultaneously curing them with ultraviolet light. Finally, they employ the most common method, FDM technology. The latter is what Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing at Stratasys, calls the holy grail when it comes to potentiality. “[FDM] can be used for making functional prototypes as well as items that would be going into manufacturing, whether it be manufacturing tools or end use parts,” he says. Waste, cost, time reduction and customizationIncorporating 3D printing technology into the production line could reduce costs by reducing manufacturing waste. Traditional subtractive manufacturing creates objects by carving them out of blocks of material. This method leaves as much as 90 per cent excess waste materials behind, according to a report published by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) titled “3D printing and the future of manufacturing.” On the other hand, additive manufacturing creates objects that retain all the materials used in the building process. An example of the cost savings from the report showed that by using FDM to build a specialty part, costs could be reduced from $10,000 to $600. Not only can costs and waste be reduced, but production time can also be significantly decreased. For example, a series of parts used to create the body of the Urbee, a two-passenger hybrid car, was printed in a matter of weeks. “[It] would have taken an estimated eight to 10 months of work for two people using a more traditional manufacturing technique,” says Vivek Srinivasan, Australia regional manager for CSC’s Leading Edge Forum and a contributor to the 3D printing report. While cost savings, waste reduction and decrease in production time are enough incentive to consider embracing 3D printing in your production line, Jarrod Bassan, a senior consultant with CSC in Australia and a contributor to the 3D printing report, believes we will see companies using 3D printing to gain a competitive advantage through direct manufacturing. “It will allow some manufacturers to offer customization where their competitors cannot,” says Bassan. “Or offer products that have some inherent advantage which is only possible because of printing.” An example of customization using additive manufacturing is Invisalign, a company that makes clear orthodontic retainers that are an alternative to metal braces. Patients are provided with a series of removable, customized retainers. Each retainer gradually realigns the teeth, and is changed every two weeks for a new, customized retainer. This is something that is only possible through 3D printing.Even airplane interiors can be customized using 3D printing technology. “You can actually make a very customized interior as far as closure panels that can then get decorative treatments to make them very customized for the pilot,” says DeGrange, who spent 20 years in the aerospace industry while working at Boeing. Mobile warehouses and keeping manufacturing at homeIf you’ve ever had an appliance break down, you know the nuisance of waiting for a repair person to come out to your home, diagnose the problem and book a return date after the faulty part has been shipped to their warehouse. DeGrange thinks 3D printing could eliminate the hassle of the wait time. With information like the model number of your appliance, the repair person can build the part that needs replacing right on the spot. “The van of the repair company could have a 3D printer and they can just download the file right there in their van and build the parts that they need to fix your dishwasher,” says DeGrange. Then there are cars. Depending on the make, its service life can be anywhere from five to 20 years and it will eventually need spare parts. “Rather than having a big warehouse of spare parts not knowing if you have too much or not enough, you can just pull up your CAD file and print out whatever quantities you need on demand where you need it,” he says.   If a manufacturer offers 3D printed replacement parts for their products, not only can they can save on storage and transportation costs, they are also able offer their consumers convenience, and happy consumers are repeat consumers. Another benefit DeGrange sees in 3D printing is keeping manufacturing right here in North America.  A lot of jobs are sent to low-cost countries like China, Mexico and India. “We do that for a host of reasons, but ultimately it’s cost,” he says. “And you have humans in that loop. [Additive manufacturing] is basically reducing the amount of humans in that loop.” Thanks to 3D printing, you no longer need to rely on cheap labour. All the information to build a product is in the CAD file. “You could integrate so many things in the CAD file that typically would take minutes or hours to assemble downstream and that’s why you ship things to China. Now you can bring all that home, integrate it upstream in a CAD design,” he says. DeGrange offers fuel injectors for jet engines as an example of how labour intensive some products are to build. To begin assembling a 42-part jet engine fuel injector, you put part one and part two in a welding station and weld them together. Then those two pieces go to another welding station and another two pieces are welded together. Now it’s a four-part piece. This continues from station to station with people welding at each one of these stations. “Now you can combine all 42 parts in a CAD design and build it with an additive process, in this case it would be a direct metal process,” says DeGrange. “It goes right from the CAD file to the machine that integrates all those parts together so you remove the need for having all the different tooling stations and all the people who would have to weld at those tooling stations.”Potential piracyWhile 3D printing is an exciting innovation, it’s not without its drawbacks. Since printing information is digital, it’s easily transferable. This means digital piracy is a possibility. However, the prognosis need not be bleak. Manufacturers can take steps to protect themselves, says Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, experts in copyright, telecommunications and Internet law. We see examples of successful management of digital piracy when we examine the last 15 years of online distribution. iTunes, Netflix and Amazon customers have proven more than willing to pay for digitized content, says Weinberg, as long as there is a way for them to do so. “The best and only real way to combat piracy is to give your customers an easy way to buy legitimate copies in the format they want,” says Weinberg.For example, manufacturers could offer downloadable CAD files for replacement parts that would cost less—not to mention take less time—to purchase and ship the part directly. That would be preferable over the litigious alternative, says Weinberg. While it can be helpful to register copyrights for things that are copyrightable, patent things that are patentable and trademark things that are trademarkable, Weinberg says that can’t be your only strategy.   “Suing individual users online is a strategy that failed for the music industry,” he says. “It is unlikely to start working anytime soon.”  Weinberg adds that manufacturers who choose to embrace 3D printing are much more likely to prosper in the long run. Tania MacWilliam is a freelance writer based in Milton, Ont. This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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