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As consumer demand increases in complexity, for facilities to find success, they must keep an eye on new technologies and trends that offer solutions to complex problems. One technology ushering the industry into a new age is 3D printing.
Three-Dimensional (3D) printing is the process of creating a tangible product from a computer model using 3D printing equipment and specialized raw materials, such as metals and resins. During the printing process, the raw materials are printed in successive, thin layers, literally building a product from the bottom up — a process known as “additive manufacturing” (AM).
This process differs significantly from typical manufacturing processes. Instead of cutting away at raw materials and creating waste, it applies the exact amount of product needed using the AM technique.
Not only does the 3D printing process remove much of the human error element of product manufacturing, but it allows users to create complex products in a range of sizes and materials at the touch of a button.
This flexibility and level of detail of 3D printing allow for the creation of unique products— only the imagination is the limit. As the demand for 3D manufacturing increases, facilities are discovering other benefits, including:
Because 3D printing is an additive manufacturing method, the raw materials are only applied when and where they’re needed, reducing the amount of wasted materials. This is valuable, especially when expensive materials are used. 3D printers are also extremely versatile — one machine can produce an endless variety of products, reducing the number of machines required to produce a single product.
A crucial advantage of 3D printing is consistency. Once programmed, a 3D printer can reproduce the same product without variation. This creates a product customers can depend on while building a lean manufacturing operation. Facilities will no longer be wasting materials on faulty production runs or wasting time remaking products that didn’t meet the standard.
Lead time is the total time it takes to complete a project. The shorter the lead time, if quality is maintained, the greater the productivity. Decreasing lead times with traditional manufacturing can rush the process, increasing the likelihood of mistakes. Because 3D printing is a consistent process and faster than non-additive manufacturing methods, facilities can determine exactly how long a product will take from start to finish without having to factor in the human-error element. This means the product gets to the consumer in a timely fashion without causing excess strain on the facility.
Customers are spending their hard-earned money, and they have specific needs that must be met for them to feel satisfied with their purchase and a facility’s manufacturing abilities. Because 3D printing doesn’t rely on premade molds and traditional manufacturing methods, each product can be customized to fit the exact specifications of the consumer. This allows facilities to diversify their offerings, introducing more opportunities to create satisfied customers while running a leaner operation.
Prototypes are expensive, and they don’t use the additive manufacturing method, meaning they require the drilling, cutting and removal of materials to be made. This process creates excess waste and is prone to errors, increasing the risk that the prototype will have to be remade, costing the facility precious resources. Additionally, the process of creating a prototype is often outsourced to a third-party manufacturer, resulting in inflated pricing and time delays. 3D printing presents a solution to these issues by providing a way to produce prototypes efficiently in-house. This allows for more flexibility and freedom during the design process and a quicker turnaround during manufacturing.
In the maintenance and reliability world, it’s not “if” a part will fail; it’s “when,” and the key to success in this arena is being able to predict when this will occur and fixing or replacing the part before it fails. But, when legacy equipment begins to fail, and replacement parts are no longer in production, it can leave some facilities feeling like their only option is to scrap the entire machine.
With 3D printing, manufacturers can make the out-of-production pieces on site, allowing them to continue using their otherwise effective machinery. One company utilizing this technology for parts replacement is Hansford Parts and Products. When a gear tooth broke on their 1966 German Knapp rack mill, they discovered replacement parts were no longer being manufactured and they were convinced they’d have to scrap the entire machine. But, thanks to 3D printing, they were able to make the exact replacement part they needed and get the machine back into production.
3D printing technology has already made a strong impact on many industries across the globe, including aerospace, construction, medical and food production.
The aerospace industry is always pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and 3D printing is no exception. Aerospace companies are using 3D technology to print different components to make a product that is lighter, more durable and easier to produce. For example, many companies have begun 3D printing frequently replaced airplane parts to cut down on repair costs. But this is just the beginning. 3D printing for the aerospace market was valued at $1.76 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $9.23 billion by 2030.
Leading the charge in 3D manufacturing parts is Boeing. In 2019 alone, more than 4,900 3D-printed engines were built, and nearly 2,900 of these were installed on Boeing aircraft. Boeing also prints over 60,000 aircraft parts each year, and this number is expected to increase as 3D printing technologies and processes continue to evolve. In fact, they’ve had so much success with their airplanes transitioning to 3D printed parts that they’ve begun implementing this process on helicopters and even a global satellite system designed specifically for the US Space Force.
The Boeing WSG-11+ Satellite Designed for the Space Force.
Image source: 3Dprintingindustry.com
When it comes to space exploration, NASA has also had its sight set on 3D printing. Currently, NASA is designing a 3D printer for the International Space Station to manufacture all the equipment and replacement parts the astronauts will need. This reduces the amount of product being taken into space while giving them the flexibility to craft anything they may need. To increase their efficiency, NASA is also creating a process that would transform plastic packaging and other trash into raw materials for the 3D printer. In this way, astronauts would be able to reuse waste, freeing up precious shuttle space and reducing the overall weight of the entire space station.
Another industry seeing the benefits of 3D manufacturing is construction. With their increased sophistication, depending on the size of the machine, a 3D printer can create anything from small sheds and support beams to apartment complexes and office buildings, all within a fraction of the time. In fact, 3D printing has been proven to reduce construction time by 70% and decrease labor spending by 80%. What used to take months now takes a matter of days to complete.
Recently, Dubai made it a mission to have 25% of their buildings constructed using 3D printing technology by 2030. To show their commitment to this movement, Dubai built the world’s first fully functioning and fully occupied 3D-printed office building called The Office of the Future. Made using an additive concrete mixture, the entire project only took 17 days from start to finish.
Dubai Office of the Future.
Image Source: archdaily.com
Dubai also holds the record for the world’s largest 3D-printed building. Dubbed the Warsan Building, it stands 31 feet tall with two stories and is nearly 7,000 square feet. The entire structure was built on-site with a gypsum-based material and used a total of three workers and one machine to finish.
The Netherlands is also conducting ground-breaking work with 3D construction. BAM, a construction company, has recently been tasked with constructing 3D-printed bridges across Europe. Once completed, these bridges will span nearly 100 feet, breaking the current world record of 86 feet, held by Tsinghua University in Shanghai. By using these additive manufacturing techniques, the Netherlands have been able to reduce their construction waste output by nearly 40%, making the potential for a future of zero-waste construction a real possibility.
Rendering of the Completed Bridge.
Image Source: 3dprintingindustry.com
Bridge 3D Printing Process Using Additive Manufacturing.
Image Source: bam.co.uk
The medical community is always looking for ways to increase their reach around the globe and find new ways to bring life-saving technologies to the people who need them most. Through 3D printing, the medical industry has sped up production rates and developed a way to provide more cost-effective medical solutions, especially to critically underserved communities.
One area seeing remarkable advancements thanks to 3D printing is the world of prostheses. Crafting a traditional prosthetic is a time-consuming and expensive process, with one prosthetic piece costing a patient upwards of $80,000. Apply this to children, who need frequent replacements as they grow, and it can be nearly impossible for them to have access to the medical supplies they need to live unhindered lives. In fact, prosthetic pieces are so expensive it’s estimated only 5% of all amputees in the developing world have access to them.
3D printing provides a solution to this accessibility issue. The process starts by taking a digital reading of a person’s limbs to get their exact measurements. This reading is transferred to a computer program that creates a rendering of the final product. From here, the prosthetic can be printed in as little as 6 hours, ready for use that same day, for less than 10% of the original cost.
3D Printed Prosthetic Arm with “Hero” Design.
Image Source: vam.ac.uk
Since the mix of materials used for 3D printing can be endlessly customized, the medical community has also begun experimenting with printing human cells and tissue in the hopes of creating viable organs for transplant purposes. While still years away, scientists have successfully created living tissue substitutes that react just like normal living tissue, which have been used to create skin, cartilage and even bone.
3D Printed Vertebrae.
Image Source: nm.org
Not only can these 3D-printed tissues be used on humans with success, but they can also be used for pharmaceutical testing. No longer will scientists need to perform testing on animals or humans. Instead, this process can be carried out on the recreated tissue without the risk of harmful side effects.
While 3D printing in the food production industry is still in its infancy, there are high hopes for the continued development of this technology and its potential applications. Currently, manufacturers can print certain types of foods, such as dough, cheeses, chocolates and even meats. While the machine can’t cook the food (yet), the machine can create intricate designs and precisely combine different ingredients to create a quality raw product.
One industry seeing remarkable progress is meat alternatives. Meat substitutes are comprised of three parts — plant protein, plant fats, and natural colors and flavors. Normally, these three parts would be combined using bulky machines that make it difficult to accurately control the taste and texture of the meat alternative. But, by using the additive manufacturing process, manufacturers can precisely combine and layer these parts to more effectively mimic the texture of meat for a fraction of the cost. Globally, nearly 30% of the population consumes meat alternatives, and this demand is only growing as people search for unique ways to include more plants and vegetables into their diets.
3D Printed Plant-Based Steak.
Image Source: spectrum.ieee.org
3D printing is also leaving a strong impact on the meat-processing field as they attempt to find more ethically sourced meat options that don’t rely on traditional slaughterhouses. MeaTech, a 3D meat printing company, is currently developing a 3D printing technology that can harvest animal fat and cells and recreate them in a way that stimulates meat growth. The meat can then be processed as normal — without a reduction in the overall taste or quality of the meat. Not only can they create edible and delicious meat, but they can also enhance certain meat qualities, such as the cholesterol level and marbling, allowing for healthier and higher-quality meats, all while drastically reducing waste and avoiding the use of potentially harmful pesticides and hormones.
3D printing technology is quickly leaving a permanent stamp on the future of the industry across the globe. With its versatility and inexpensiveness, 3D printing presents a unique opportunity to expand manufacturing and production beyond what was originally thought possible. By presenting new solutions to old problems, the industry can build a lasting foundation of progress and potential.