The process of 3D printing is quickly altering the way entrepreneurs think about their production cycles. Historically, 3D printing has been used to speed up the process of creating prototypes, but as the technology has evolved, 3D printing has made its way into large industries like the aerospace and biomedical fields. And it's creating some groundbreaking results.
While 3D printers still have a long way to go before they are perfected, their increased adoption by companies big and small has signaled a change in thinking for businesses, during both the design and production phases. To find out more about how 3D printing technology is affecting business today and where it's going in the future, Business News Daily spoke to engineers and entrepreneurs about the possibilities afforded by 3D printers.
First of all, what is 3D printing? It's the process by which three-dimensional digital models are made into physical objects using a 3D printer. Working in tandem with computer software, the 3D printer reads a digital .STS file on a computer and then uses a filament or a resin to render the digital representation in tangible material, layer by layer.
3D printers employ a variety of materials, including plastics and polymers, steel, titanium, gold, and ceramic. This versatility means 3D printed models can be used for everything from artistic sculptures to airplane components. Some 3D printers can even print proteins and chemicals, enabling the devices to create foods and medicines.
"I don't think there's a component made today that won't somehow be touched by 3D printing in some fashion or another, whether directly or indirectly," said Mark Cola, president and CEO of 3D printing and quality assurance company Sigma Labs.
Most experts agree major developments in 3D printing are just a few years around the corner, and these advances will revolutionize the way businesses think about manufacturing and their supply chains. First, let's take a look at some of the ways businesses are already using 3D printers.
Applications for 3D printers
One of the oldest uses for 3D printers is the quick and efficient creation of prototypes. Since the printers were invented in 1983, companies have employed 3D printing in order to get a workable model of their desired end product, either to test the concept or present it to future investors.
"Before we called it 3D printing, it was called rapid prototyping," Greg Paulsen, director of project engineering for third-party manufacturer Xometry, said. "It used to be seen as a way to get close enough to a functional model."
Now, that's changing. While entrepreneurs still gladly use 3D printing for prototyping, the technology has become more accessible and adaptable, leading to new applications.
Though 3D printers can be slow-moving, they're adept at fulfilling low-volume production needs. Much like with prototyping, if an entrepreneur is ready to launch a new product and isn't certain of the demand, he or she can print up a small amount to test the waters. Low-volume production is also common when it comes to medical devices, for example, as manufacturers create, test and redesign their products for optimization.
"When small companies develop new products and need to make 50 parts to test, or just to bring to a trade show, tooling up for traditional manufacturing can be very expensive," Doug Collins, owner of Avid 3D Printing, said. "They might not have the capital to tackle [traditional manufacturing]. 3D printers allow low-volume production without as much investment, so they can save that capital for the other important stuff, like marketing."
Another beneficial use for 3D printers in is the creation of mechanical parts, either for sale in large industries or for personal repairs. Many products of 3D printing aren't sold directly to consumers, but are created by companies (or third-party contractors) as components in a larger project. One example is GE Aviation's 3D printed fuel nozzle, which will be added to the company's CFM LEAP airplane engines.
Small machine shops or individuals looking to make home repairs can also employ the same techniques for their projects. 3D printing has made it far easier to reproduce parts for machines that might no longer be in production or that would take too long to arrive.
"I grew up in a small town of about 5,000 people. My stepfather is a mechanic, and he often needs to get specific parts that aren't immediately available," said Brent Hale, owner of 3D printing review website 3D Forged. "Rather than having to drive out of town to get a single part, or instead of having to wait weeks for a custom part to come in, if my stepfather or the small local hardware [store] have a 3D printer, he can purchase the printable schematics for the part he needs directly from the manufacturer — or design them himself — upload them to the 3D printer, and have his new part without having to leave town or wait weeks for the part to be shipped to him."
One particularly exciting aspect of 3D printing is the ability to print biomedical devices tailored specifically to individuals. For example, some companies are developing 3D printed, custom prosthetics for amputees; these prosthetics are designed to be far more comfortable for the user.
"[Biomedical engineers are] 3D printing components for people that better match their characteristics than the off-the-shelf components," Cola said. "I think where you see this tech going is more toward the performance and athletic side of the business, where you have athletes fully regain their performance levels after injuries, or maybe even enhance their performance levels with 3D components tailored to their needs."
Other notable uses of 3D printing in the health care space are in ongoing efforts to develop printable organs for patients in need of transplants and the printing of chemicals and proteins to develop new medicines.
When engineers design a product, they must keep in mind the limitations of the production process. 3D printers are capable of creating parts that would previously not be achievable using traditional manufacturing techniques. This opens up an entirely new world in the design phase, which can lead to better, more efficient products and component parts.
"I think the exciting part from an engineering standpoint is how it changes our thinking process for designing parts," Collins said. "We have this whole new approach to design. It's an exciting time from a design perspective."
"It opens your mind up to everything you can do with it," Paulsen said. "I'd really like to take this technology off the pedestal and say, 'This is a normal manufacturing process,' just like anything else."
Copyrights and 3D printing
As 3D printers proliferate, the means of easily reproducing protected intellectual property does as well. Roy Kaufman, managing director of new ventures at Copyright Clearance Center, is a copyright and patents attorney by training, and he warned that the manufacturing industry could be approaching its "Napster moment." By that, he meant the experience of the entertainment industry when music and movies could be quickly reproduced and pirated on the internet.
"I think we're going to see, as we see with almost every technology, two things happen: Things get cheaper, and they get better," Kaufman said. "As the quality of the printers gets better, the available materials to print get better, and as costs come down, you get to that moment — 'the Napster moment.' [That's] when the means of reproduction are now so diffuse, the ability to reproduce at a low cost had been so spread out, that you can no longer really enforce your rights entirely effectively with existing IP [intellectual property] laws."
That moment could be coming as quickly as in three years, he said, or it might not come at all. However, the mere fact that 3D printers have become so widespread makes it a plausible scenario that requires appropriate strategic planning, he said. Kaufman suggested insulating your company by guaranteeing your supply chain and the quality of product that goes along with it.
"[The consumer] might pay a premium for the assurances of the supply chain," he said, "but they want to know that it's not just a matter of what [the product] looks like, but that it's right. Testing and certification will become more important."
Within these major developments, there also lies opportunity. 3D printing will allow manufacturers to license the rights to their designs, which could be made downloadable to the licensee to 3D print. The technology could also bring production levels more in line with demand, thereby saving on production, shipment and storage costs.
"If you look at a typical pharmacy, for example, they have all these medicines with a sell-by date and are hoping someone will come in and need a prescription for it before they have to throw it out," Kaufman said. "They pay to store it, pay to save it and maybe even have to keep it in a central warehouse.
"But imagine [that] your local CVS can print everything under license, [and] get the chemicals from the pharmaceutical company, and maybe even [the] machine. The company doesn't have to make things that might never get taken, never has to ship them and never has to store them. Everything can be manufactured as needed."
How 3D printing develops down the line remains to be seen, but all of the experts who spoke to Business News Daily agreed on one thing: What the world has seen from 3D printing so far is only the beginning.