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3-D Printing Continues to Gain Strong and Transformative Momentum

A recent column in The Economist places 3-D printing-additive manufacturing-front and center as factories of the future emerge as a result of the digital revolution in manufacturing. Recent advances in the technology are bringing it to the forefront:

Additive manufacturing, as it is known technically, is speeding up prototyping designs and is also being used to make customized and complex items for actual sale. These range from false teeth to parts for cars and aircraft. 3-D printing is  not yet ubiquitous. Generally, it remains too slow for mass production, too expensive for some applications, and for others produces results not up to the required standard. But … these shortcomings are being dealt with. It is not foolish to believe that 3-D printing will power the factories of the future. Nor need the technology be restricted to making things out of those industrial stalwarts, metal and plastic. It is also capable of extending manufacturing's reach into matters biological.

On the supplier side, the poster child for 3-D's rapid advance in manufacturing is Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal, founded in 2013 by four MIT professors with a clearly stated revolutionary goal:

Desktop Metal was created to change the way we bring products to market. Current metal 3-D printing is too expensive and industrial for prototyping and it's not fast enough or cost-effective enough for mass production. Fundamentally different approaches are needed to move metal 3-D printing beyond its current limits.

The market is responding: in July of this year, the company added $115 million in venture capital as it continues to pursue its goal of making 3-D metal printing for manufacturing a present-day reality.

The company has two systems: first, the Studio system, an "office friendly" 3-D metal printer designed for engineers and up to 10 times cheaper than comparable laser-based systems; second, the Production system, to be available next year, will be the first 3-D printing system designed for mass production. The latter is 100 times faster than laser-based systems and able to deliver per-part costs that are competitive with traditional manufacturing processes and up to 20 times lower than current metal 3-D printing systems.

But advances in metal printing are far from the only additive manufacturing development. Two others of particular note:

  • Redwood, California-based Carbon has developed a 3-D printer that uses a process called digital light synthesis, a software-controlled chemical reaction used to grow parts. The Economist describes the process as follows:  
    It starts with a pool of liquid polymer held in a shallow container that has a transparent base. An ultraviolet image of the first layer of the object to be made is projected through the base. This cures (i.e., solidifies) a corresponding volume of the polymer, reproducing the image in perfect detail. That now-solid layer attaches itself to the bottom of a tool lowered into the pool from above. The container's base itself is permeable to oxygen, a substance that inhibits curing. This stops the layer of cured polymer sticking to the base as well, and thus permits the tool to lift that layer slightly. The process is then repeated with a second layer being added to the first from below. And so on. As the desired shape is completed, the tool lifts it out of the container. It is then baked in an oven to strengthen it.
  • The medical industry is beginning to use 3-D printers to print living tissue for transplants. While largely in the experimental stage, researchers are already using “bioprinters” to make cartilage, skin, and other tissues.

The interest in the technology is not limited to the high-tech manufacturing sector. For example, at the upcoming FABTECH show in Chicago, interest in the technology has grown among fabricators to the extent that an Additive/3-D Pavilion has been added as one of the features in the exhibition.

The Revolution at Hand
All these developments support the findings of a Deloitte study that appeared at the beginning of the decade, in which the analyst firm asserted: "3-D printing will potentially have a greater impact on the world over the next 20 years than all of the innovations from the industrial revolution combined."

That potential is looking more like reality as each day passes. The rapid increase in innovation being enabled by developments in additive manufacturing is reshaping the sector faster than once imagined, with new businesses, business models, products, and services emerging as a result.

As the cost of 3-D printers continues to fall while their functionality increases, these developments can only be expected to accelerate. Manufacturing is becoming something that would have been unrecognizable as little as five or 10 years ago; to be sure, additive manufacturing continues to emerge as a major driver of that transformation.


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