The 3D printing revolution

The advent of cheap, fast and versatile 3D printing has made it useful to an ever-wider variety of businesses, while competition-induced price reductions have meant that even the smallest SMEs can now afford to have a 3D printer installed in the corner of the office. Lorenzo Spoerry investigates its potential applications.

Monday morning, 6am. The alarm clock rings and, with head firmly buried under your pillow, you stretch out a lethargic arm to silence it, knocking over and breaking your Significant Other’s favourite vase.

What’s your next move? 1. Buy a new one? 2. Blame the dog? 3. Print off an identical copy? If Option 3 sounds like the stuff of science fiction, it might surprise you to know that three-dimensional printing has been around since the late 1980s, when stereolithography first became commercially available. Today, the technology to print off an object is cheaper, faster, cleaner and increasingly utilised in industries as diverse as aerospace, design, automotive, architecture and education.

“Over the last five to ten years, more and more lower-cost machines have come into the market.

Conceivably, even domestic consumers will be able to buy some of these lower-cost machines,” explains Dr Greg Gibbons, a senior research fellow at the Warwick Manufacturing Group and an expert in rapid prototyping and manufacturing.

“The technique is often used in architecture.

Architects Foster and Partners has 3D printing machines running 24-hours a day building the CAD [computer-assisted design] programmes that they’ve inputted. In the morning, when the prototype has printed, they decide which ones they will select and which ones they’re going to throw away.” At present, 3D printing is commonly used to make customisable parts and prototypes more than for mass production because of the slow build speeds and the prohibitive cost of the materials. As material – plastic – costs fall and 3D printing becomes more widely recognised and adopted, components made using 3D printers are increasingly finding their way into the manufacturing process for end-use products.

Stratasys, headquartered in Minnesota, USA, is one of the leading companies in the field of 3D printing. The company is betting that its Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology could soon become dominant in a market currently replete with a wide variety of competing technologies. Its printers are currently used across a range of industries from architecture to shipbuilding, especially in the automotive and consumer products sectors.

Mercury Custom Motorcycles, a US bespoke motorcycle manufacturer, has been using Stratasys’s Dimension 3d printers to make prototype parts and custom accessories for their customers. Using these printers has shortened its lead times from many months to an average of three and a half weeks, saving it between £3,000 and £5,000 a month in the process.

It has also managed to find new and unexpected uses for its 3D printer. The company is marketing an LED light that fits within the arc of a motorcycle fender – a part that would have been impossible to manufacture solely with injection moulding.

Israel-based company Objet are marketing a 3D printing technology which allows for up to 21 different variations of material on a single part. A razor handle built using this technology could have a stiff handle and a flexible neck, for example. The Z Corporation is another big name in the 3D printing business. Its printers are capable of producing very accurate parts at a speed of two vertical inches an hour.

SMEs buy in to 3D printing
Many designers and very small scale manufacturers already use 3d printing. A printer that costs £12,000 today would probably have cost nearly ten times that 20 years ago. The ability to produce multiple variations on a design within a very short timescale has enabled the development feedback loop to happen much faster.

“Today all of our products are used by SMEs, it’s definitely not limited to the Fortune 500 companies,” says Tim Heller, managing director for Stratasys in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “I’ve seen people who’ve put them in their basement. There are a lot of one- or two-man design bureaus with a lot of talent who have elected to use our printers to support their business.” “In the early days people thought this technology would be great for a one-off – which is true – but actually it’s being used now in industries where you can make hundreds or even thousands of items,” explains Heller. “A lot of parts go into production equipment. One of our earliest examples was parts in business electronics. One of the pieces inside the device was made using our technology until they could get other tooling developed.” Many people in the market consider the development of computer-assisted design as a threat to rapid prototyping, but Heller isn’t worried.

“The virtual and the physical complement each other. As human beings we are not well trained in visualising things from a computer screen. You want to know how a widget holds in your hand, you want to know whether or not you can fit a part in a service capacity into, say, a car engine. For that you’ll always need a physical part.” Stratasys’ FDM technology is a simple plastic extrusion system, where a plastic filament is automatically loaded into a small head fitted with a heater. The heater melts the wire and “draws” lines in plastic, creating objects layer-by-layer in much the same way as a chef uses a pastry tube to decorate a cake. The plastic that Stratasys uses is called ADS – a standard, relatively tough type of plastic that is also used in injection moulding.

New wave of bespoke manufacturers This technology is being used by Hewlett- Packard in its new range of low-cost 3D printers, a development that Warwick University’s Dr Gibbons believe could have big implications. “There’s little doubt in my mind that the new HP printer will sell like hot cakes. It’s possible to get functional parts out of it and it’s very easy to use – you can just stick it in the corner of an office and treat it like a standard inkjet printer.” The advent of 3D printers costing less than £10,000 that can manufacture parts using ADS plastics is already creating new revenue streams for manufacturers, as well as enabling the launch of entirely new kinds of bespoke manufacturing companies. “It will all be internet-based,” says Dr Gibbons. “If you haven’t got the technology to make it, you’ll be able to design it, send it to a company and the product will be sent straight to you from the most cost-effective location.” Freedom of Creation, a Dutch company, already sells a range of products over the internet from lamps and lampshades, Apple iPod and iPhone cases, to tables and chairs using laser sintering technology. Laser sintering allows the use of a much wider range of materials than stereolithography, including end-use materials such as nylons.

As competition drives prices down and new capabilities emerge, 3D printing will increasingly find its way into smaller, ‘boutique’ companies. “It probably won’t be more than a few years before every SME in the mechanical design or the 3D illustration business has a 3D printer,” says Stratasys’s Heller.

“That’s going to be a big milestone.” It is difficult to predict when 3D printing will eventually find its way into the domestic home. It might be that within 20 years, 3D printers could be nearly as common as normal 2D, desktop printers, allowing for the constraints of day-to-day application of ink versus 3D printed items. What is certain is that the technology will soon affect, in one way or another, a vast number of people, both as commercial manufacturers, their customers and everyday consumers.