If 2018 was a big year of promises for 3-D printing (and it was), perhaps 2019 will be the year we start to see those promises fulfilled.
The technology, developing since the 1980s, is now leaning toward manufacturing applications. These days, you’re more likely to hear those in the industry discussing facets of additive manufacturing, of which 3-D printing is one part of a larger process. Design and pre-processing precede the 3-D printing of a part, which must then be post-processed and finished. This end-to-end workflow comprises additive manufacturing, though the terms are used relatively interchangeably in casual conversation. These conversations are changing, though, as the technology matures.
So what are we talking about in 2019? What promises have been made, and have they been fulfilled?
The Promise: On-site 3-D printing.
The Reality: In development.
Digital manufacturing solutions including additive manufacturing foresee workflows where a design created in one location can be zapped over for manufacturing in one or more different locations. Useful for remote operations (e.g., mining in the Australian outback, onboard ships, in-the-field with deployed troops, oilfield) and particularly for spare and replacement parts as well as maintenance and repair, 3-D printing enables agility in getting the parts needed where they need to be — by producing them there. Digital inventory is developing as a strong concept, and one we can expect to hear much more about in 2019. R&D is ongoing, with field tests increasingly examining the technology to validate processes and materials for use. Meeting or exceeding existing standards at a lower cost, and in a shorter time frame, is a tall order.
The Promise: Standardized best practices.
The Reality: In progress.
Because 3-D printing is still a nascent technology, it has a long way to go to catch up to conventional manufacturing processes. With seven ASTM-recognized 3-D printing processes to date (and several others arising recently with claims for new categories), regulation is a big need. Each process needs to be thoroughly vetted and understood to establish best practices. Reliability and repeatability are necessities for production processes, and industrial 3-D printing has, in most cases, a ways to go yet. Standards organizations like ASTM International are working with industry partners to further develop procedural, materials and safety standards. Investments into such efforts showcase industry willingness and readiness to close these gaps, and 2019 should see more headway made in standards development.
The Promise: Complexity is free.
The Reality: Nothing is free.
3-D printing enables more geometric freedom of design than do conventional manufacturing processes. Lattice structures, generative design, complex internal structures, part consolidation, lightweighting, mass customization: the benefits of building up rather than removing material abound. So much so that you’ll often hear sales pitches that with additive manufacturing, “complexity is free.” Yes, more is possible, but that ‘more’ comes with several asterisks. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) is an area requiring significant upskilling and training before full advantage of the capabilities of this equipment can be leveraged. There are also ripples from design overhauls that may create new complexities in the supply chain by removing now-superfluous parts and workflows. On the 3-D printer itself, all parameters must be calculated and calibrated precisely as certain design elements — like high aspect ratios, thin walls and overhangs — may pose in-build problems. Failed prints add to costs and time, and until these can be minimized to acceptable levels, especially for longer builds (which can last for weeks), complexity is certainly not free.
The Promise: Serial manufacturing.
The Reality: It’s already there (and it will never be there).
Volume manufacturing via 3-D printing is already a reality — and has been for a number of years. Most hearing aids on the market today are made with 3-D printing technologies; adoption in this application was famously quick, with more than 90% of the US hearing aid industry moving to 3-D printing in just 500 days. Orthodontic aligners are another major use case. Shoes and insoles are also on the market today, both mass manufactured and mass customized. Consumer products are also hitting shelves with 3-D printed components, including frames for eyewear and handles on razor blades. But. Most volume production is the domain of conventional technologies: injection molding, milling, casting. Additive manufacturing still has a long road ahead in meeting necessary milestones. Speed, price and quality all need to see improvements for 3-D printing to compete with traditional processes. For now, this relegates most applications to those that require the specific qualities 3-D printing delivers. In many cases, of course, traditional technologies will maintain their dominance. 3-D printing is a new set of tools, but that’s just expanding the available toolbox.
So where does that leave us as 2019 dawns?
3-D printing is a complex technology suite, and the promises are many. These four barely scratch the surface of some of the issues the industry faces today — and also provide a glimpse at some of the progress already being made. There’s a lot we hope to see this year, and trade press is awash with predictions and expectations as 3-D printing continues to mature and evolve. The industry is young, and the road to mainstream manufacturing remains a long one; advances made in 2018 are paving a strong foundation for major strides forward in the year ahead.