3D Printers

Material Worlds

15 Nov, 2011 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

3D printing is finding myriad applications — from rapid and custom manufacturing to DIY projects to parts production in space — as reliability, affordability, and functionality reach new heights.

Marketplace Modifications

Manufacturers are still the most prominent user of 3D printing, applying the technology to concept modeling, functional prototyping, casting, mold making — and increasingly, the production of end-use parts and products. Shochet noted that the medical and dental manufacturing markets have grown quickly in recent years; this is due in part to increasingly affordable laser scanning equipment that can quickly convert the unique contours of a patient’s ear canals or molars into CAD data.

“Architecture is a little behind the product development folks in the adoption of 3D CAD tools, and consequently 3D printing is trailing by a few years [in that market],” said Titlow. He noted, however, that “architects love models — they’ve been making models since before there was CAD.” In fact, Titlow said, a few AEC firms make the leap to adopt 3D CAD software because they desire the resulting physical modeling capability: “They’re so excited about 3D printing, it’s pushing them to get on board.”

Rise of the maker movement. The most dramatic change in user demographics in the past couple of years is the rapidly growing group of nonprofessionals — hobbyists, enthusiasts, and makers — motivated by artistic creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, or simple fascination with the technology. This groundswell is supported by a new category of “personal” machines that have a relatively small pricetag (less than $5,000) and a footprint to match. This newest group of machines joins the two categories marketed to professional users: commercial printers (approximately $5,000– $50,000) and 3D production systems, which offer the largest build sizes, best finish and feature detail, greatest number of material options, and most robust output ($50,000–$100,000 and more).

In early 2009, when Cadalyst published the 3D printing report “Almost Real,” 3D Systems was preparing to market its V-Flash personal printer for less than $10,000. Today, in addition to that unit, the company offers the Bits from Bytes BFB-3000 Plus — “the first preassembled 3D printer on the market from less than £2,000 [approximately $3,300]” — and the user-assembled RapMan 3.1, beginning at £795 (approximately $1,300).

Although the prices of these entry-level machines make them accessible to nonprofessional users, their capabilities cannot compare with those of more expensive models. Fischer cautioned that “today’s output quality really doesn’t lend itself to be used for anything other than a crude concept model.”

Making the most of office space. Prices are continuing to come down for office-oriented machines too; the professional entry point for FDM and inkjet-type technologies has dropped into the teens. When “Almost Real” was published, Objet had just released its Alaris30 desktop model at a price near $40,000. Less than two years later, the Objet24 entered the market, offering a similar build capacity for $19,900.

Users of desktop-sized professional machines share many of the same comfort and safety needs as home users, since they too will be in close proximity to the unit while it operates. For example, a modeling process that generates a large amount of heat might be fine for a commercial fabrication shop, but unacceptable in an office setting.

Shochet explained further: “’Officeability’ has a lot of meanings: no offensive noise or odor, and it uses chemicals that are similar to those that usually exist in the office environment [ in terms of limited toxicity]. There are some systems that produce more odor and need more ventilation, some that consume a lot of energy — such as sintering and melting plastic — but overall, the whole market is moving toward officeability.”

The Real Deal: End-Use Products

“The 3D printing industry was built on using the technology for making prototypes, and that’s arguably still the primary use, but it has really broadened into manufacturing end-use products,” said industry consultant Wohlers. “Fastforward 20 years, and this technology will have a much bigger impact. I truly believe it will develop to become more important and more useful than any other method of manufacturing on the planet,” he said. “Already, it is being used in so many ways and industries.”

As examples, Wohlers offered orthopedic hip-socket implants, airplane parts, and dental crowns and bridges. “The product volumes are relatively low, the parts are relatively small, and the value of each product is quite high — that’s when it makes the most sense to use additive manufacturing to make final products.” Wohlers believes that both hardware developers and service bureaus that have been focused on rapid prototyping — such as Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS, Harvest Technologies, Solid Concepts, and Paramount Industries — are undergoing a transformation. “They will still build prototypes, of course, but the target is to move into part production with 3D printing. ... That’s where the money is, and that’s what’s exciting.”

This trend affects not only parts and products for business use, but consumer items as well. Service bureau Shapeways does a brisk business in 3D-printed earrings and candleholders, keychains and dice — all final products, ready for use. As of early this year, Wohlers reported, the company was creating about 12,000 products per month, with an average selling price of $14 per item. Although most are lasersintered out of thermoplastic powder, Shapeways adds new material options frequently, including glass, sterling silver, and ceramic.

Make it faster, make it better. Manufacturing with a 3D printer differs from traditional processes, such as injection molding or CNC machining, in several ways. Because there is no need for factory setup or tooling creation, production can begin as soon as the CAD data is ready. That can result in much shorter overall production times for small runs, even though each individual product takes longer to create than with traditional methods.

Custom products — ranging from hearing aids and prosthetic limbs to personalized giftware — are an excellent example of short-run manufacturing. “Prior to this technology, the manufacturing industry would produce custom products, but they were very expensive,” Wohlers observed. “Now it can be done affordably and relatively fast.”

Three-dimensional printing also enables improvements to the design itself; the layer-stacking additive build process can create overhangs, enclosed cavities, and joints that either cannot be achieved by traditional methods, or are prohibitively expensive. Consequently, the widget in question can be redesigned to be lighter, use less material, comprise fewer component pieces, and require almost no human intervention.

Aerospace companies such as Boeing, GE Aviation, and Northrup Grumman are exploring ways to use 3D printing to produce lighter metal parts with less waste. (When a part is milled from a solid piece of metal, as many aircraft components traditionally are, as much as 90% of that material becomes scrap, said Wohlers.) Airbus is redesigning the expensive metal brackets that anchor subassemblies such as galleys to the main body of the aircraft, reducing their weight by 50%–80% while preserving their strength.

Metal-based systems have gained traction in recent years, thanks to wider awareness of their capabilities; a greater number of material choices, including titanium alloys, cobalt chrome, and stainless steel; and certification by regulatory bodies. Wohlers noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared hip and spinal implants manufactured by electron beam melting (a process similar to SLS), and he predicts more approvals on the horizon.

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