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Will 3D Printing Ever Replace Conventional Manufacturing?

3D Printing

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

Industrial 3D printing processes like Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and Electron Beam Melting (EBM) owe a debt to earlier rapid prototyping methods that have proven useful for making concept models and prototype parts. But today's advanced additive manufacturing methods are capable of much more, and have already proven their worth as complementary enhancements to traditional manufacturing processes. Besides reducing lead times and eliminating tooling (and the costs associated with it), processes like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) provide the opportunity to enhance the performance of parts because they allow you to run more iterations of a design. The more iterations you can do, the more thoroughly and effectively you can prove out your design and refine it until you get what you really want—or, at least, more than you could have gotten if you were constrained by tooling costs.

"Some of the components that product designers are making can take a very long time to get fabricated by traditional techniques, especially where you have to make tooling," said Luana Iorio, manufacturing technology leader at GE Global Research. "You don't want to make a lot of expensive tooling for just producing one prototype and then testing it before deciding whether you like it or not. In that case, designers are often limited in how many iterations they can do in a product's development cycle. Additive takes away that constraint, so they can potentially do many more iterations and come to a higher performance design; whereas, before, they may not have been allowed the luxury of a few iterations to really optimize the performance of the design."

But will 3D printing ever replace traditional manufacturing processes? Truth is, nobody really knows. It's a reasonable question to ask, given 3D printing's strong growth rate over the years (a 25.4 percent compound annual growth rate over the past 25 years, according to Wohlers Report 2013), its projected future growth, and the recent surge in media coverage of the technology. Whether you believe the answer is yes, no, or something in between, rational arguments can be made in support of a variety of forecasts.

Terry Wohlers, president of the additive manufacturing consulting firm Wohlers Associates, Inc., the publisher of Wohlers Report, doesn't believe it will happen anytime soon for high-volume, low-complexity parts that can be made more quickly and cost-effectively by conventional processes. Others say additive manufacturing will increasingly take market share from conventional processes in a sort of "high tide" scenario, as opposed to a more overwhelming "tsunami" scenario, which would bring much faster disruption and displacement of traditional technologies.

Many see the convergence of trends in digital technology, customization, and crowdsourcing as enabling faster and wider adoption of 3D printing as a viable manufacturing process. Still others see additive manufacturing as offering a value proposition that's separate and distinct from that of conventional manufacturing processes, one that makes it a complementary, rather than a competing technology.

The message from many practitioners in the field is that, regardless of whether or not you believe that 3D printing will ever replace conventional processes, it's time to get up to speed on the technology. Those who are working with the technology say that its potential to change the way people design and make products is huge. Others who are tracking the technology say that it's hard to imagine an industry that won't be affected.

"It's clearly a paradigm change in the way structures are designed and produced," said one company president interviewed by Design2Part Magazine. "And that paradigm change will enable efficiencies and performance in end products that will create huge value, economically and societally."

Exciting Times

It's always best, especially in manufacturing, to be in step with the times. Does this mean you should be an early adopter of additive manufacturing? Not necessarily. But when an emerging or unfamiliar technology is the focus of as much interest and R&D as additive manufacturing, it probably means that you should take the first step toward answering that question by becoming educated, by learning more about the technology. If you do a lot of custom work for low volume applications, additive manufacturing may be right for you. You won't know, though, until you begin learning about its strengths and limitations for different applications, and start talking to providers about material properties, costs, and quality.

We're living in exciting times, where the unprecedented powers of computing, instant communication, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and collaborative design can be powerful multipliers of great ideas, enabling designs, and constructive action. To ignore these trends and their impact is to risk being left behind by those who use them to their advantage.

One company president interviewed by Design2Part Magazine credits the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) for raising the profile of additive manufacturing in a big way, helping to stoke interest in the technology and laying the foundation for people, including engineers, to learn more about it. As a result, he said, people are contacting his company to "get smart" about whether or not the technology can help solve their manufacturing issues.

"It was a huge profile raise," he said. "And so CEOs of industrial companies went into their executive teams and said, 'Hey, let's get smart on additive; let's make sure that the other guy isn't going to figure out how to use this before us, and we get our lunch handed to us. That's absolutely the right thing to do if you're a CEO of one of those companies. But what that's meant is, down into and through the engineering ranks, eventually, there's somebody in almost every industrial company in America whose job it is to get smart on additive manufacturing. That's really a very positive result of this whole thing, which means that we get calls where people say, 'Hey, we don't really know what part to make; we don't really know what process to use, but let's get smart, and then we'll start talking about the types of problems we have. And it's that process which is probably the single biggest bottleneck in this industry."

There's somebody in almost every industrial company in America whose job it is to get smart on additive manufacturing. Enough said.

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