While 3-D printing technology has been used for decades in prototyping and short-run production, new methods and materials could finally launch additive manufacturing into more widespread, higher-volume uses.
The technology has long offered a playground for engineering department experimentation but never really advanced beyond specific niches, according to industry experts. 3-D printing dates to the 1990s and always starts with a digital model or computer-aided design (CAD) file. Then, the three-dimensional object is built by a machine that adds material layer by layer, earning it the name “additive manufacturing.”
Today, the repeatability, materials, timing and precision of 3-D printing technology is allowing the tool to have more value to industrial production, according to Mike McLean, general manager of Grand Rapids-based 3Dprintedparts.com.
“Right now, we’re seeing a shift within the industry where materials are becoming more robust and print times are becoming significantly faster and downstream processes are being automated,” he said, adding that the change to more robust 3-D printed products and manufacturing has come in the last five years.
In 2018, the global market for 3-D printing was $8.4 billion, and the sector is forecast to expand at a 22-percent compound annual growth rate through 2023, when it could be worth nearly $23 billion, according to a report by BCC Research LLC, a market research firm based in Wellesley, Mass.
Additive manufacturing is exceptionally attuned to applications requiring complex geometry, high customization, reduced part count, or lightweight materials, according to McLean, who said the current production business at 3D Printed Parts is evenly split between prototyping and either tools or end-use parts.
He points to Invisalign, a plastic form of dental braces manufactured by California-based Align Technology, as a poster child for the “mass customization” potential of production-level additive manufacturing. Align Technology shipped more than 1.2 million Invisalign products worldwide in 2018, according to the company’s fourth quarter report.
3D Printed Parts also is using metal printing internally, McLean said, which will open up the possibility for additive manufacturing to produce fully dense stainless steel components without the need for tooling.
“Ordinarily, if you needed a manifold for an airplane or some type of low-volume engine, you’d have to invest in a mold and then cast the component,” he said. “With the metal printer, we can just 3-D print directly off the digital design and there is no investment in tooling.”
Plus, the capability of metal printing frees designers to create for functionality as opposed to problem-solving for the available tools, like those used for drilling holes into a block of steel or aluminum.
“Passageways don’t have to be a straight shot. With 3-D printing, it can be really any shape you need,” McLean said.
Paul DeWys, the owner of Coopersville-based Forerunner 3D Printing LLC, invested in a $400,000 Hewlett-Packard (HP) 3-D printer last year, allowing the company to compete against low-volume injection molding manufacturers. As a result, Forerunner experienced year-over-year sales growth of nearly 50 percent, as MiBiz previously reported.
At the same time, DeWys is on a relentless mission to change perceptions about additive manufacturing. He spends a significant part of each week “educating” customers about “how much faster, cheaper and better” 3-D printing has become.
“Once we get some wins and enable designs that could not be done in any other way, word spreads like fire,” he said.
Six months into the investment, DeWys said he has production automation customers who order parts from the machine every month. While some customers want regular repeats of the same small parts and others need highly customizable details, the commonality among all the orders is that they could not be produced economically with CNC machining or metal casting — with one small caveat, according to DeWys.
“Complexity is totally free,” he said. “It’s size that costs you.”
Near limitless freedom to create complex geometries has caused 3-D printing to become a favorite among robotics manufacturers. The technology lends itself to sensor housings, placement fixtures and end-of-arm tooling, said DeWys, who noted the material used in the printer at Forerunner is relatively durable and lighter than aluminum. The company’s lead time is three or four days.
“This HP machine is changing the game,” he said.
Compared to a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine, the standard in 3-D printing, the new HP Multi-Jet Fusion (MJF) machine takes nearly half the amount of time for a full, complex build.
“The MJF is the equivalent of if you want to paint a fence and have the choice of either painting it with a Sharpie or painting it with a spray gun,” DeWys said. “The spray gun is going to go faster and that’s kind of the difference between SLS and MJF.”
In addition, parts produced through SLS can be notoriously expensive because the machines themselves are expensive to operate and maintain. The majority of raw materials used to build and produce from an SLS machine are locked up in early patents, which have “crippled” the industry by keeping costs high, according to DeWys. In contrast, HP has used a “commodity model” to keep material costs down.
DeWys, who operates both technologies at Forerunner, said the cost per part on the HP machine is routinely 25-percent to 50-percent cheaper than using the SLS.
“Lead times are getting shorter and part cost is dropping and both are opening (3-D printing) up for my automation customers,” he said. “I haven’t heard ‘it’s too expensive’ in quite a while. It can do a lot of things that CNC couldn’t do at all.”
In an industry spurred by prototyping and innovation, the transformation to production is not relenting, according to McLean, who was attending the Additive Manufacturing Users Group conference when he spoke to MiBiz.
“The tools and materials that I’ve seen at the conference today are going to enable more and more from software and engineering tools to machine design and function and all of the secondary processes that follow,” he said. “There are complete packages coming out where five, 10 years ago there were a lot of gaps in the value stream for 3-D printing — all of those gaps are getting closed now.”