3D Printing Of Products Takes Off!

Additive manufacturing - popularly referred to as 3D printing outside of manufacturing - has escaped the laboratory once and for good and is today dramatically transforming the manufacturing process. At the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago a few weeks ago the world watched in awe as the first working 3D-printed vehicle called the Strati was created from scratch in 44 hours. This is just the beginning of a radical change in manufacturing.

According to Rudy Vogel, Managing Principal at nuFaktory, "Companies can trim weeks if not months from their design, prototyping and manufacturing processes by using additive manufacturing, and at the same time create new products and increase profits." NuFaktory is an unusual hybrid of individuals with profit and non-profit institutional partners in Massachusetts dedicated to advancing the application of breakthrough additive manufacturing throughout all of manufacturing. Here's what I learned from the experts at nuFaktory and elsewhere.

The most awesome innovation to hit manufacturing in a generation is surely 3D printing which turns the traditional manufacturing process on its head. Instead of building components by grinding and milling away unneeded material, 3D printing builds them from scratch one layer at a time. Waste is minimized and, the ability to create completely new internal and external features is limited only by the designers that leverage this capability. Existing designs can be consolidated into single parts that have increased performance and lower total costs.

The first phase of 3D printing is computational design. We no longer squander time making drawings and clay models. Computer software using geometries and shapes known as "voxels" yields three-dimensional shapes through mathematical coordinates that only recently existed in cyberspace. Designers and engineers bypass traditional manufacturing methods and send their creations directly to the 3D printer which translates them into real products.

3D manufacturing was first conceived in 1984 and has evolved gradually. It's most obvious limitations were size and materials. Early prototypes could only create small objects from plastics. Today, designers have a rapidly growing shopping list of materials that include a range of polymers, metals, ceramics, food, and even bio-materials that could one day provide new organs. In addition, the build envelops are expanding. Delta 3D Printer Kits are now capable of part builds up to 4 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall. More commercial systems are in development with build volumes of 250 cubic feet and growing. This means that furniture, appliance frames and even an entire automotive chassis can be printed - which is how the Strati was born.

With large scale printed products on the horizon we are now looking for a new hybrid manufacturing technology - a new additive process that combines metal deposition with Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining on a single machine tool. To date, additive manufacturing processes for metal have been limited to prototypes and small metal parts that are impossible to manufacture with conventional techniques. Hybrid manufacturing takes 3D printing to its next level by combining it with metal machining processes on a single machine tool, unlocking new opportunities to make production quality parts with the same additive-like flexibility and precision.

Bill Macy, a Senior Principal at nuFaktory points out, "Hybrid manufacturing is also combining the use of mass produced stock materials, like plate stock, adding localized features to that stock material only where needed through 3D Printing. This yields a scenario whereby mass customization will be applied to existing lower cost mass produced products providing lower base costs and higher performance."

Expanded computational design options - ever increasing 3D Printer build volumes - growing material options - hybrid processes - never before have so many cutting edge technologies spontaneously coalesced offering unprecedented permutations of manufacturing and new production techniques. What an exciting time to be in manufacturing!


Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. January 2015