3D printing has been around for a long time and is transitioning. Over the last few decades, this rapid prototyping technology has been creating a lot of opportunities in manufacturing—from a well-defined approach to design and development to low-cost manufacturing. In the recent past, we were still getting fascinated at the capabilities of machines that could 3D print a tiny replica of our chair or a well-known building. A couple of years later, the next generation of machines would be able to print medical devices such as surgical instruments, implants, and dental restorations, as well as implantable human body parts. Meanwhile, the technology has also progressed rapidly for industry applications—and it’s a field to become much high-profile in 2020.
3D printing technology or additive manufacturing (AM) changes the manner in which we build objects, opening up a universe of new conceivable outcomes. Rather than cutting and soldering, 3D printing enables us to build objects with great geometric flexibility by successively adding materials layer by layer, hence the name additive manufacturing. Additionally, new geometries have distinctive physical properties: imagine the structure of a honeycomb that provides greater resistance with less weight. This is the place 3D printing turns into an exceptionally powerful asset for industrial applications. We can build materials that are much lighter, stronger, and have added heat resistance; and we can manufacture similar materials with fewer parts, for example, GE engineers reduced 855 separate parts to only 12, significantly rearranging the assembly process of its jet engines.
Additive manufacturing, however, reduces the complexity: we can assemble a geometrically very complex product as effectively as a less complex one. And yet, the technology helps in reducing complexity by giving us fewer parts to build.
3D printing helps us in building objects with new materials, in turn, driving materials science research to build part using new materials that are best suited to the additive process. Supported by AI and driven by 3D printing, the discovery of new materials is expected to advance this year. In addition, the technology plays a significant role in the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0); it will help overturn customary economies of scale, making microfactories financially proficient; and it's currently adding to reshape worldwide supply chains, reinforcing local networks.
In the months ahead, the evolution of 3D printing will itself give rise to some of the most exciting discoveries. 3D printing manufacturers are striving to improve the performance of their machines considering various factors:
Large-scale 3D printers will be able to print objects rapidly. For AM to work full-scale, 3D printers need to print objects at much greater volumes i.e. by tuning the printing speed. Bob Swartz, the founder of Impossible Objects, has already started tuning the speeds of 3D printers, with thermal inkjet technology, that uses the speed properties of 2D printing. Not long ago, the company introduced another machine intended to be multiple times faster than conventional 3D printing processes. This year, you can expect more new achievements and records to be broken.
3D printers will have a wide range of industry applications. In spite of AM producing very complex and highly subtle designs, it can be a delicate process. In numerous 3D printers, it happens inside a chamber that regulates temperature and moisture and keeps out incidental particles. This can essentially restrain what these machines can do. Merge Manufacturing, a global leader in additive manufacturing, has built machines that can print objects in uncontrolled situations: they can work 'in the field', on oil rigs and army bases; without the limitations of a controlled chamber, they can print bigger objects and be used to fix as well as to fabricate new parts. The new generation of 3D printers will work in a broader range of remote environments. Think about a remote and hard-to-reach (HTR) areas, where having the option to print a new part as opposed to waiting for a new one to show up could significantly decrease manufacturing losses.
Next-gen 3D printers can be easily handled, adaptable, and combine a wider range of materials. Markforged, a leading manufacturer of industrial 3D printers, has built machines able to print an expanding variety of materials such as metals, chopped carbon fiber, superalloys, and nylon. On the other hand, Impossible Objects has collaborated with BASF to accelerate the design and development of new materials for AM. XJet, another provider of ceramic and metal additive manufacturing technologies and solutions, has developed a Nano Particle Jetting technology that allows the same machine to print ceramics and metals. 3D printing using this particular technology changes the entire composition and properties along different parts of a single seamlessly printed object.
Technological advancements will fuel 3D printing more than ever. Software advances lie at the heart of additive manufacturing. Just like it is a delicate process, AM is also a highly digital process. A key advantage of 3D printing is that it allows the redesigning of a segment by essentially changing the digital blueprint, which in turn speeds up the design-prototype-test-production cycle. In any case, software(s) has a huge role to play in AM: Essentium, a 3D printing solution provider, uses software to check materials and production protocols, for example, expulsion temperature, so the parts delivered can be valid. Markforged has built another cloud-based solution that enables the 3D printing of materials and parts in one location as well as thousands of miles away so that the company’s manufacturing facilities can use the same blueprint in real-time.
It's become apparent that understanding the maximum capacity of 3D printing requires the collaboration of organizations with various foundations and expertise, startups, and enterprises. AI is there to help, by fueling generative design processes. However, we likewise need new training and education programs to raise a new generation of mechanical designers. Partnerships and collaborations across different domains will accelerate the process. A few months down the line, 3D printing will be considered as the most transformative and monumental technology in the Industry 4.0.