3D printing has long since graduated from its buzzword status from a few years ago. It has been continually proving it has substance by delivering on its capabilities and leaving its users awestruck at what’s in store for the future.
“It’s a technology that you have to experience to really understand what it can do,” explained Steve Brand, a product designer with Loewen Windows.
It’s an industry that is still growing despite having been around for nearly 30 years. And with all of its efficiencies, 3D printing – synthesizing three-dimensional objects through successive layering of material – has become the norm for many and will continue to drive those in the manufacturing world.
When it came to designing and testing new products in the past, manufacturers would wait several days or a few weeks for a prototype. That process has changed significantly, whereas today they’re capable of designing a model, sending it from the software to the 3D printer and having the part within couple hours.
“You can iterate very quickly to design changes,” Brand said. “Whereas before, with new designs you would spend a lot of time, especially when you were getting to a point of committing to buying tooling, analyzing to make sure you got it right. Obviously, once you cut the tooling then you wait a few weeks. When it comes back to you and it’s wrong it can cause quite a bit of difficulty for you.
“Now, you can just try it. It’s so quick and easy and relatively cheap to print something. You end up trying a lot more ideas than you did before and getting it much more quickly to your final solution.”
Noel Mattson can attest to that. His staff at Melet Plastics in Winnipeg were experimenting with drain valve with water heaters, a simple plastic valve they sell millions of every year. During the optimization process, they used simulation tools and were able to work through design changes to improve flow through the valve in question. An integral part of this experiment was printing the design concepts and running flow tests through them to verify the results being accurate.
The end result? They were able to reduce the drain time in the tank from 48 minutes to 19 minutes. In the process, Mattson believes his company likely saved upwards of $50,000 in tooling for different pieces that may have required several modifications. And by using 3D printing, Mattson and staff were able to bypass all tooling requirements and saved themselves valuable time.
“Examples like that show how (3D printing) really transforms the engineering process. It shortens the development cycle significantly.
Companies may live with a solution that is not ideal, but the end result doesn’t affect them enough to justify buying a new tool. Now, it’s possible to run 3D printed parts through a series of tests before the actual part is used. That mocked part can be iterated several times in a day until the desired fit is reached.
As one might expect, a company’s access to 3D printing further aids when it comes to sales and marketing. A random idea can quickly take shape, literally, thanks to the drawing of a concept in 3D modelling software. Within minutes, that drawing is sent to a printer and it’s possible that within 24 hours a product can be produced.
When it comes to selling the idea of using 3D printing to customers – or in some cases, medical patients – the industry is quickly gathering anecdotes and developing a large body of work.
The exploration of 3D printing has become popular among doctors and surgeons in recent years. The creation of transplantable organs and tissue has been successful with customized implants tailored specifically to fit a patient’s anatomy.
There has been one world-first surgery after another in recent years, with jaw bones and skulls, spinal fusions and hip joint replacements, a variety of prosthetic limbs all made possible through 3D printed parts.
Home builders are able to create architectural scale designs and models for new structures, and set props within the movie industry also have incorporated 3D printing.
The automotive industry has been using 3D printing for miscellaneous parts for decades. Aerospace and aviation also use it – in 2013, a 3D printed part was used for the first time in a jet engine.
Even the food industry has experimented with 3D printing with certain foods like pasta, pizza and chocolate having been created.
Brand admitted that 3D printers at the Loewen office almost always generate the most conversation.
“I think people are amazed of its capabilities,” he said. “The technology is more mature than some people think. A small manufacturer may think this is way out there for his needs. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s mature, it’s reliable and it’s fairly transformative.”
The years ahead for 3D printing are forecast to be bright with a lot of untapped potential. It’s an industry that is expected to see a significant increase in worldwide revenue – from $3 billion in 2013 to $13 billion in 2018 and upwards of $21 billion before the end of the decade.
The rapid development with 3D printing has driven down the cost of the machines. Printers used to average well above $100,000.
“You’re seeing almost a democratization of 3D printing technology,” Brand explained. “If you went online you could probably find a very large number of companies selling 3D printers in the range of $300 all the way up to $100,000.
“You’re seeing a lot of development not only from the original 3D printing companies to kickstarter groups, and now you’re printing with all sorts of different materials like rubbers and powders, wood-filled plastics.”
There is room for improvements in the way this industry approaches its future. Some users indicate there should improvements to the point where it’ll be harder to differentiate between a 3D printed part and a molded part.
“Users will likely see more printed parts being used for production use,” Mattson said. “If you only need a couple hundred parts in a year the more economical choice will be to print them. We’re starting to see that a little bit.”
As well, 3D printing of metals is coming on strong and advancing to the point where you can 3D print a mold and use it to manufacture a part. Titanium and cobalt chrome are a couple of examples of this.
3D printing already is efficient when it comes to waste. But those who use the machines agree that more work can be done by using more environmentally friendly materials.
“It’s still definitely growing,” Mattson concluded. “The material options are growing every day. There are more material options. It seems like the machines are getting better and better with resolution and surface finishes.
“I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing its limitations.”