Great leaps forward in technology – and a big drop in machinery costs – have placed 3D printing within reach of the global masses. And, say our experts, those who embrace the trend have the potential to change the way we do business, forever
Think of 3D and you’re most likely to conjure images of clunky dark glasses and disappointing films. But the underwhelming response to those movies could hardly be in sharper contrast to the current buzz around 3D printing – a rapidly evolving prototyping and manufacturing technique for which, thankfully, no cumbersome eyewear or suspension of disbelief is required.
In fact, while it’s making global headlines, 3D printing – or additive manufacturing as it is also known – has been around for more than 25 years. In 1986, American inventor Charles W. Hull patented an automated technique for creating a solid object by laying down, or ‘printing’, successive thin layers of a liquid plastic – each solidifying on top of the other until the desired shape was created.
Today, the evolved technique sees the creation of an object as a detailed 3D file on a computer before it is printed, layer-by-layer, in a wide range of available materials. Companies such as aerospace giant BAE Systems have been using the method to rapidly produce prototypes and components for more than 20 years. But recent leaps in technology have opened up a new world of possibility.
Miranda Bastijns, director of world-leading additive manufacturing company Materialise – which has 3D printed all manner of products from customised hearing aids and catwalk dresses to a perfect replica of Tutankhamun’s mummified remains – told Director: “Twenty years ago the only prints available were plastic ones. Now you have gold, titanium, ceramics, marble powder, and more. These days there is a great deal more choice.
“And, most importantly, because the machines have become more reliable, people can use 3D printing as a real manufacturing instrument. In the past it was used to make prototypes, but now it can be used to make the final product.” Indeed, experts estimate that 28 per cent of 3D printing investment is in final products, but expect that to rise to 80 per cent by 2020.
Dr Phil Reeves, managing director of Econolyst – a global 3D printing consultancy which advises the UK’s Technology Strategy Board – adds: “Five years ago we didn’t have the technology that would allow us to 3D print a fully dense metal component. But a number of changes in laser physics and power have enabled machines that can directly melt metal to build solid objects. That’s really opened the floodgates of opportunity in a range of sectors from dental reconstruction, to jewellery production, to jet engine manufacture.”
Another revolution, explains Reeves, is coming from a price breakthrough in the retail of 3D printing machines – meaning that companies such as New York-based MakerBot are able to supply affordable desktop-sized machines to individuals and companies around the globe. “Ten years ago the lowest-cost machine you could find on the market was £20,000, five years ago it was £10,000 but today you can go and buy one for £1,000,” he says.
The opportunities arising from widespread ownership of 3D printers would appear to be limitless. From designers selling their 3D creations online for buyers to print themselves, to companies that will allow clients to customise products before printing and delivering them, to catalogues of spare parts for domestic appliances that can be printed at home – the list goes on. But, from amid the mind- boggling array of possibilities, Reeves outlined for Director five major business benefits of 3D printing:
1. Avoiding mass-production
Additive manufacturing has already been used for many years to produce prototypes on the spot, without the need to keep ordering expensive factory-made models. Similarly, now the technology is advanced enough to produce finished products, it can negate the need to mass-produce an item to make it a cost-effective enterprise.
“With 3D printing you can economically produce low-volume batches down to a size of one, because the economics of making one are exactly the same as making 100 or 1,000,” says Reeves.
“If you’re not having to make that capital investment, you can say ‘well what else can we do with that money? If we’re not investing £60,000 in an injection mould tool upfront, how else could we invest that in our product development innovation cycle?’ So there’s an upward spiral from using the technology and that’s a very attractive position in a tight economic climate. It also mitigates risk – if there’s a lack of market acceptance for a particular product then you don’t have to worry about having made a significant capital investment in it.”
2. Creating complex components
The ability to create complicated shapes on a computer, or even scan complex structures from nature, and then print them also offers huge opportunity, says Reeves. “We can make illogical shapes that you can’t make by moulding or machining. For example, we can make a hole that goes around a corner. It may sound trivial but let’s say you’re making a vehicle fuel pump. Traditionally, you’d take a block of metal and drill a hole in one direction, drill a hole in the other direction and hopefully they meet in the middle and you have a fluid flow path.
“However, it’s not the optimum fluid flow path because you have a nasty sharp corner where the fluid can cavitate and pressure will drop. Instead, we can print a nice hole that flows around the corner. Similarly, with brackets in aerospace – of which there are thousands on every aircraft – traditionally they’re machined from solid blocks, not to the optimum design but to the most cost effective. With 3D printing, we are able to move much more towards designing the optimum strength-to-weight object. That is really beginning to capture people’s imaginations.”
3. The ability to personalise
“If you couple those first two points together, you now have the ability to make personalised items. Because every product can be economically and geometrically different,” Reeves explains. “We’re already seeing that in a variety of medical applications from hearing aids, to orthopaedic implants, to procedures like maxillofacial reconstruction – where we can feed MRI or CT scan information directly into our 3D printing systems.
“On a similar theme in business, we’re now seeing a lot of companies hooking the internet up to 3D printing and letting customers design their own products. We’ve been working with a well-known toy company looking at the possibility of setting up an online tool that allows people to design their own toys within the bounds of the brand – and also the possibility of people printing toys at home, downloading the data in a similar way you do with music via iTunes. With that, of course, comes a whole host of considerations from intellectual property, to health and safety, to brand identity – all things we work on with our clients.”
4. Greener manufacturing
“There are also environmental benefits to 3D printing – a major one being the compression of the supply chain and mitigation of the need for transportation,” says Reeves, giving the hypothetical example of a British company selling the designs of its product to a customer in Japan who is then able to 3D print it themselves – eliminating transportation costs and the fuel emissions, which are generated by the use of international freight.
“And a further big driver for business is the reduction in raw materials used to make lightweight components,” he continues. “Recent figures published by EADS/Airbus highlighted that for every kilogram of weight you take out of an aircraft you’ll save around $1,500 (£940) in fuel costs a year. All of a sudden it will make businesses think – ‘are we manufacturing the most fit-for-purpose product?’ And tied in with that reduction process, of course, is an environmental benefit.”
5. Escaping supply chain risk
“Another exciting aspect of 3D printing is the idea of complete supply chain realignment,” says Reeves. “In a traditional business you start with market research, you go through product development and then you launch your product, someone pays you for it and you deliver it. Well, that’s all being completely reconfigured because we can 3D print to order. So there are a lot of companies out there now that are taking payment over the internet for the product before it actually exists.
“And that’s the perfect scenario for the SME – a cash-positive business with no capital investment. I could sit here and set up a virtual business selling lampshades or sports shoes and I won’t event commit to have them made until I’ve received the money from you. And when I do, I can sub-contract the 3D printing to a bureau anywhere in the world, which has made the capital investment in the machines and is selling their capacity. We’re seeing that on many levels from small firms to significant global players in the retail sector.”
The next dimension
If interest in desktop 3D printing machines in the UK is anything to go by, there are many already exploring these opportunities. John Dimatos, head of applications for MakerBot, reports healthy sales: “Since its announcement in January, the MakerBot Replicator [priced from £1,090] has been a huge hit in the UK, with direct purchasers and UK distributors alike buying them as quickly as we can produce them,” he told Director.
“And globally we’re already seeing a generation of independent industrial designers using our machines to prototype their early designs at a fraction of yesterday’s cost… We’re convinced that we’re leading the way towards a future of entrepreneurs discussing the viability of a product they imagined in the morning with investors in the afternoon, and of consumers welcoming the creation of products in their homes instead of factories.”
Meanwhile, says Bastijns at Materialise, there are still many boundaries to push with the capabilities of 3D printing technology: “There are many more materials to be explored. For instance, one that is very much wanted but isn’t there yet is wood. If that becomes commercially available then there would be more things to be made. And there are other materials we and other companies are looking into – it will run on endlessly I think.”
She adds: “The other thing is that machines are getting bigger and bigger. There are companies trying to make machines so big that even houses can be printed, and there are already companies doing 3D printing in concrete to the size of what I would call a garden shed – not a house yet, but close to that direction. There is still a great deal of research to do but we can be sure that in a couple of years there will be many more possibilities than there are now.
Why appliances may never become obsolete thanks to 3D printing
“In the future if you need a spare part for something in your house, you could just have it 3D printed,” says Miranda Bastijns, director of Materialise.
“We already do this today for vintage cars. The cars were developed before computers, meaning there is no existing 3D digital file for their parts. So we put the part under a scanner, and get a 3D scan of the object. Then, if the part is broken, we can connect the broken elements on the digital file and simply print a new spare. In the future this could be the same for your washing machine, cutlery set – so many things that might break and need replacing.“