By Rose Eveleth
Posting in Aerospace
At what point will 3D printing move beyond novelty to industry? Will these machines change the way we manufacture goods, and subsequently change the global economy, too?
Lately, it seems like nearly everything has been reproduced by a 3D printer. Between the group that 3D printed a gun, the people who printed a drone, and the army of items sold at this small marketplace for 3D printed goods, there are plenty of novelty uses for these suddenly trendy machines. We're a long way from 3D printing a house, but it's clear that the hobby is inching into the mainstream.
Yet it's difficult not to wonder: at what point will 3D printing move beyond novelty to industry? Will these machines change the way we manufacture goods, and subsequently change the global economy, too? (Is it already happening before our very eyes?)
The answer: yes and no. The term "3D printing" comprises two very different worlds: hobbyist 3D printing, where people with relatively inexpensive machines print plastic objects in the comfort of their homes; and industrial 3D printing, which is usually referred to by another name: additive manufacturing. They are vastly different and will likely have divergent impacts on the economy. Both, however, are poised to alter the way businesses think about production.
Right now, home 3D printing is relatively exclusive to hobbyists and makers. A machine for the purpose costs about $4,000, and typically only prints objects from plastic. For now, those objects tend to verge on the trivial: bracelets, puzzle games, figurines. But some envision a future where people will be able to 3D print replacement parts, or even entire products, at home.
The arc of the 3D printing trend is similar to other technologies, says Cherie Ann Sherman, an economist at Ramapo College in New Jersey. In its infancy, the technology is today confined to crafts, hobbyists and hackers. But the path is well-worn. "If you think back to computers, that's how personal computers started," Sherman said. "They were being sold in hobby stores."
In the modern age of mass manufacturing, consumers aren't fixers. Most people don't take their toaster apart to figure out what's wrong with it, and even fewer will want to then 3D print a replacement part. But 3D printing can still have a huge impact on the home product economy, says Phil Anderson, an inventor and Ramapo College professor. Rather than each person having their own printer at home, local businesses and hardware stores could adopt the technology. Take your faulty toaster to Home Depot or Sears, and a store employee could isolate the problem and print your solution on the spot.
The development path of 3D printing could resemble that of photo printing, Anderson says. When it became affordable for people to have printers in their homes, people began printing their own photos. Today, most people don't print their own photos, despite increasingly better home technology; instead, they avoid printing at all, and reserve the special occasions that they do for shops with high quality print services. The same could hold for 3D printing: if printers become affordable enough, many people might initially buy them, but they will eventually turn to specialized shops to get the job done as the technology becomes ubiquitous.
Still, the economic impact of these kinds of 3D printed products -- one-off components or replacement parts -- could be radical, Anderson says. They could eliminate the need for huge warehouses of parts and cut the need for shipping different components from place to place as they're ordered, in favor of instantly creating a perfect replica on-site. Three-dimensional printing could reduce or eliminate some of the steps between product creators and consumers. The existence of the middle man that buys, sells and ships is threatened.
"I can cost-effectively make a cell phone cover that is unique to every customer," explains Ryan Wicker, a researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso. "I could build 100 different ones just as cost-effectively as building them all the same." That flexibility and direct delivery is why 3D printing might change the markets for home appliances, jewelry and other small goods.
Sherman likens it to the way the Internet has cut the middle man from artists who can now promote their art or music online without a big record label attached to them. Now, people discover musicians on YouTube as easily as the radio. "You can be the Carly Rae Jepson of 3D printing," she laughs.
The factory floor
Far from your living room or office is the world of the factory -- the large, the numerous, at a scale that eclipses that of a human. This world of 3D printing, or, as industry designers call it, "additive manufacturing," is far more mature. Industry has been printing parts for years now, from plastic vents to airplane parts to cars.
Take U.S. aerospace leader Boeing, for example. The company has two entire divisions dedicated to additive manufacturing: one for plastics, and another for metals. The two present quite different challenges. Plastic 3D printing is a more developed process, used for simple components such as vents and knobs. Metals, on the other hard, are far more complex, often used for structural components that require more safety oversight. Yet parts comprised of either material are made with the same process. More applications are expected in the near future.
As adoption increases, the potential impact of additive manufacturing on the labor force is difficult to understate. Traditional manufacturing requires a lot of unskilled labor, which is far less expensive in developing nations such as China and India. As globalization took hold over the last several decades, international outsourcing by companies pulled jobs away from former manufacturing hubs like the United States. In an additive manufacturing-based industry, that's not necessary. Plus, the jobs that support it tend to be more, not less, skilled. "You're electromagnetically steering an electron beam, which is a very powerful energy source," says Dave Dietrich, the lead engineer from the metals group at Boeing. "These people are heavily trained technicians."
Three-dimensional printing also stands to make industrial design more efficient; with new capabilities comes new processes. Take a complicated engine piece, for example: what once required several pieces manufactured separately then fit together can now be designed and printed as one piece. For the airline industry, for example, that means lighter parts that translate to reduced fuel costs. "Even though we live in a 3D world, most of our products are designed in 2D," Wicker says. "Just imagine allowing the full creativity of my designer to take advantage of all three dimensions."
For big industry, a better bottom line makes additive manufacturing worth it, allowing for efficiencies in the process, speed and cost of manufacturing. For now, the costs to research and begin implementing such a process are large. But the future is clear, says Michael Hayes, the lead engineer for Boeing's non-metal based 3D printing team. Five years from now, designing in three dimensions will mean that each part will be designed to perform several functions, rather than just one, he says.
Whether for leisure or line production, the predicted effects of the 3D printing process are manifold and immense. All it takes is a few big companies to sign on to set in motion a major shift in global markets, Sherman says. "These companies don't see the technology as ripe yet," he said. "Once they take a step in that direction, that's when it will really have its impact."
Image: Keith Kissel
Nov 14, 2012
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For big industry, a better bottom line makes additive manufacturing worth it, allowing for efficiencies in the process, speed and cost of manufacturing.
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As a science fiction buff many of these inventions were thought of before but the economic result has not been planned for. Think of the effect on world economies that go from mass manufacturing to retail custom manufacturing. What do you do with the unemployed? How do we reintegrate personal economics into Global sustainability. How do we allow people to provide for themselves in a financially and socially successful manner.
Lately, it seems like nearly everything has been reproduced by a 3D printer. Between the group that 3D printed a gun, the people who printed a drone, and the army of items sold at this small marketplace for 3D printed goods, there are plenty of novelty uses for these suddenly trendy machines. Weâre a long way from 3D printing a house, but itâs clear that the hobby is inching into the mainstream. See this article: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-08/researcher-aims-print-3-d-print-entire-houses-out-concrete-20-hours It is not as far out as it may seem. Some are looking at building a moon base with 3DP, a simple search will bring these ideas and forums up.
I've been designing in 3D for 25 years. I've used 3D printing for prototyping for 15 years. As others have said, there is little chance 3D printing will "Shape the Global Economy" much. They are great prototyping tools, they can be cost effective for small runs of plastic parts as injection mold tooling typically cost over $100,000, and they will be a load of fun as home project tools. Don't get over excited, it's not like they are cars or computers.
There are two problems with 3D printing that will impact this. First, is the issue of time. 3D printing is SLOW. Compare injection molding with 3D printing. In the time that the 3D printer can make a single part, the injection molding machine will make a couple of dozed, or even a couple of hundred. Time is a big cost. That's the whole reason for Mass Production. Second is the issue of materials. because of the time factor above, any single 3D printer will not use a terribly large amount of material. Because of the larger throughput, the injection molding machine will use much more, so the amount purchased will be much larger, driving the cost per Kg down. Adding these two factors together, relegates the 3D printer to a niche area of manufacturing. Still, there is a place where 3D printing shines. That is in prototyping situations, and where there is only a very limited product run needed. Those are the areas where a 3D printer will really make an impact. I wouldn't want to rely on a 3D printer if my business is selling screws or screwdrivers, but, it would be really valuable on say a spaceship, where a replacement part is vital, and we are weeks away from any factory. It would also be quite useful for a car buff that needs a part that hasn't been made for 40 years. In industry, it is already very useful for making the parts that are then used to make the molds for mass production. 3D printing will never make everything we as a planetary economy want and need. It will, however be added as another valuable tool. Every new tool adds some value.
Finally, an article that at least cautions readers not expect that the world is going to be changed by 3-D printing - at least drastically. What is it about the material and cost limitations - the economics of "3-D" printing that is so hard for reporters to understand. Don't you get comparing 3-D printing to the internet - is totally inappropriate and just logically lame. The idea that Home Depot is going to start repair shops using 3-D printers for parts is economically absurd. The idea that I'm going to go to a 3-D printing booth to make a new handle for the screw driver I broke yesterday is equally absurd, because the price of the 3-D printing material (assuming it is structurally adequate) is more than the cost of the a new screw driver. It's the economics - or the lack thereof that has and still governs the applications of 3-D printing - not the technology. Why not just state the obvious -there are certain types of tasks - such as single material small number component product development where 3-D printing can excel, however these are relatively limited number of applications. At the same time 3-D P will be economically unfeasible for many other production processes where existing tech like die cast molding large numbers of products where 3-D printed products can't come close to competing - ever. It's just simple math. physics and basic economics.
"Time is a big cost. That's the whole reason for Mass Production." It's not the whole reason. Mass production replaces custom building each item. It takes far less labor to build each item -- not just the time, but the cost of paying all those laborers. Also, standardized parts are easier repairs and higher quality.