The implications of emerging technologies on the industrial manufacturing markets are hotly debated. Some industry experts are predicting large-scale disruption, while others believe such calls are premature. In the case of 3D printing, we may have just reached the tipping point, as major manufacturers look to take advantage of the technology beyond the R&D labs.

Why 3D print at all?

While much of the industry hype focuses on how it can efficiently produce prototypes, the technology is also likely to have a significant impact on how manufacturers do business. Material costs, logistics strategy and product pricing could all be impacted.

3D printing technology should reduce the amount of material waste and increase efficiency.

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While a typical aluminum part could see as much as two-thirds of the original block of metal wasted, a 3D printed part wastes almost nothing.

A maturing technology

Typical hobby machines use fused deposition modelling (FDM) technology, which uses a heated nozzle to print material in layers, building up an object over time. The resulting object can often lack detail and precision, so companies must look to more complex techniques for industrial use.

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Stereolithography and digital light processing (SLA and DLP) technologies use a liquid resin photopolymer cured by light. The higher level of detail means they are a common choice for prototyping. At the higher end of the market, selective laser sintering uses lasers to heat powdered material such as nylon into a solid.

Spare parts to be transformed

Industries that utilize spare parts – such as automotive – are likely to be the first impacted by such a shift. Warehouses full of spare parts all around the world are expensive to maintain. Why carry inventory when you can print a large proportion of the required parts on demand? Not only does this remove inefficiencies in the supply chain, it also speeds up delivery time especially in smaller markets.

Major names in global manufacturing have made some intriguing moves into industrial 3D printing in the last year.

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GE purchased two European 3D printing companies for $1.4 billion, while HP introduced its first industrial 3D printer. The HP Jet Fusion is the first to print parts at the voxel level, a tiny cube, 50 microns in size, that is the 3D equivalent of a 2D pixel.

Moving beyond the prototype

In automotive, Ford uses 3D printing technology to quickly produce prototype parts, improving its development time for individual components such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents. In a press release, the company said: “One day, millions of car parts could be printed as quickly as newspapers and as easily as pushing a button on the office copy machine, saving months of development time and millions of dollars.”

With many companies experimenting with 3D printing technology for prototyping, the big sea change will happen when those companies turn to 3D printing for production parts.

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It’s already happening in some industries. Industrial 3D printing company Stratasys is currently working with Airbus to produce parts for A350 aircraft, while Shapeways technology allows any user to upload a CAD drawing and print it in any of 60 materials, including metals, at a constant per-unit cost at one of its facilities in the USA and Europe.

A game changer for industry

Looking ahead, 3D printing will undoubtedly be a game changer in many industry segments, improving product quality and, in some cases, enabling companies to generate completely new products that were previously not possible.

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In other industries, not all parts are going to be 3D printed, so it will be essential to understand when and where the technology will be advantageous to your manufacturing and logistics strategies.