How 3D Printing Technology is Influencing the Future of Product Development
During a recent search for inspiration, I stumbled upon a series of simple and attractive housewares. Although they initially appeared unrelated, each object had been created using 3D printing (3DP) technology. Eventually, I discovered that all of these products were produced by the same company: OTHR. This company’s mission is to release a new product every 2 weeks using 3DP as the primary method of manufacture.
Due to the simplicity of the designs, my initial reaction was to question the reasons for using 3DP technology as a production method, when these items could just as easily have been made using more traditional techniques.
Have we come to the point where 3DP is such a buzzword that things are produced this way just for the sake of it?
In an interview with Dezeen, OTHR founder Joe Doucet reasons that “[m]ost people think of 3D printing first and foremost as something that can make what other methods of manufacture can’t. It allows for a complexity that can be very tempting for designers and the results are things that only exist because they can, and perhaps should not.”
The aesthetic opportunities of 3DP are certainly the most immediate advantage of this growing technology. As evidenced by both his comments and the simplicity of these designs, Doucet has chosen a more restrained—but no less beautiful—approach.
This is sound design reasoning, but it still does not explain why these objects are manufactured using 3DP. Later in the interview, Doucet provides an interesting answer: “We are using the technology to disrupt the current supply chain involved in producing goods, not to create crazy new forms.”
OTHR realized that an object’s physical design alone might not be enough of a differentiator in their market. By focusing their efforts on circumventing the established supply chain, they have dramatically expanded their solution space while bypassing many of the roadblocks that exist for modest production volumes.
Below, we’ll discuss some of the less glamorous (but equally impactful) effects of 3DP on the product-development process, focusing on its transition from prototyping technology to mass manufacturing method.
Let’s start by examining how 3DP is already making inroads.
Today’s 3DP Market
Speed to market has never been more important, and 3DP is perfectly positioned to capitalize on this factor. Large and fledgling companies alike are utilizing 3DP as a “bridge manufacturing” technique. The process mitigates risk by allowing organizations to test product in the market before committing to expensive hard tooling.
Consider the inherent risk of bringing a new product to market: how do you know if it will succeed? Normally, a product failure equates to an enormous amount of wasted material, time, money, and energy. But by utilizing the bridge manufacturing concept, a failed trial run instead minimizes risk and allows development to stop or redirect before the project incurs irreparable damage.
Alternatively, if the product is successful, a decision can be made as to whether demand warrants a traditional high-volume manufacturing method moving forward. And while the design is refined for final tooling, product can continue to be sold in the interim.
Smart companies recognize that creating a rich user experience is a critical component of a product’s success. For some users, this requires feeling as though the product is designed specifically for them. This is another area where 3DP is particularly well suited.
The high cost of traditional hard tooling typically limits the amount of variation that can be offered within a product line. In contrast, the flexibility of 3DP increases the ability to customize via multiple small runs, accommodating a wide number of users. Examples include Layer Design’s GO Wheelchair (made to measure, and printed specifically for each user) and Asus’s range of 3DP motherboard accessories.
Additionally, old or obsolete parts can continue to be offered while minimizing or eliminating production downtime.
Understanding the current applications for 3DP is only part of the puzzle. Broad implementation of the technology will cause ripples in various places along the supply chain.
Compared to other manufacturing techniques, 3DP has a relatively low barrier to entry. An industrial 3DP machine capable of generating production-quality parts is still a large investment, but the lack of tooling required for 3DP (versus injection molding) will save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the machine.
Other benefits of 3DP include reduced machine footprint and quick setup time. So companies can now set up their own small, in-house production operations without relying on large outside vendors.
For manufacturers who integrate 3DP into their capabilities, the opportunity to decentralize manufacturing will present itself. Large-scale, high-capital manufacturing sites will still exist. However, the ability to produce parts in small quantities from a number of locations will provide a level of flexibility and responsiveness that wasn’t previously possible. Manufacturers will be able to produce any part at a facility near the part’s final destination, shortening turnaround time and reducing overall cost.
Supplier management and material sourcing will also require less time and effort, thanks to the relatively simple wire/spooled or powder inputs used by most 3D printers. The raw material can be made with a high degree of consistency from a wide variety of vendors, lowering cost and increasing availability.
3DP is often presented as a panacea for design constraints, offering capabilities that can’t be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods. While this is true in some ways, it’s not that simple.
Just as injection molded parts must incorporate draft and consistent wall thickness, 3DP has its own idiosyncrasies that preclude it from being used as a one-to-one replacement for other processes. Build resolution, layer orientation (depending on the technology used), support material, and build plate size/area are all factors that must be considered if a part is being designed for 3DP manufacturing.
Let’s start by focusing on fused deposition modeling (FDM), an easily accessible 3DP technology:
FDM machines build parts by laying down hundreds of thin layers of material, which fuse together via heat to create a complete part. The side effects are a “topographic map” aesthetic, and an inherent weakness along the build layers compared to other dimensions. A trade-off may be required between aesthetics and part strength when deciding the print orientation.
While the FDM part is printing, a sacrificial support structure is built up simultaneously wherever the geometry of the part cannot support itself. If the scaffolding isn’t water soluble, the part must be cleaned up by hand—a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, depending on the complexity of the part. This is especially true of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), where the metallic support material must be ground and filed off to reveal the printed part.
Another 3DP technology, selective laser sintering (SLS), solves some of the issues mentioned above. The machine spreads a thin layer of powder across the build area, followed by a laser that bonds selected grains together. This process is repeated until the part is complete. The loose powder supports the part during the build, meaning there is no scaffolding to remove afterward.
Other advantages of SLS include high-strength parts and a wide range of printable materials, including ceramic, glass, and metal (in addition to plastic). The downsides are poor surface finish, low resolution, and long build times.
In terms of optimization for mass manufacturing, 2 new systems are at the forefront: HP’s Jet Fusion 3D and Carbon 3D’s SpeedCell. The HP system addresses the primary shortcoming of other 3DP technologies: speed. HP claims that these machines are up to 10 times faster than traditional 3DPs, thanks to area-wide platform processing, which reduces the number of passes made by the print head. The 3-part system allows the printer to begin the next part immediately, while the completed part is transferred to the processing/cleaning station.
In addition to these enhancements, HP has also taken steps to improve the surface finish and dimensional accuracy issues that hinder other powder-based systems. This system is significantly more expensive than other 3DPs, but its superior capabilities make small/limited run production increasingly viable.
Carbon 3D’s SpeedCell system uses yet another technology to achieve their goal of quickly producing end-use parts. The printers build using Digital Light Synthesis (DLS), which shines UV light into the underside of a pool of liquid resin. The build platform rises from the resin tray as the part manifests out of the shallow pool.
This process is enabled by Carbon’s Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology, which creates layer-less, high-quality components. Completed parts are rinsed of excess resin in the Smart Part Washer and baked to cure.
Even considering the improved speed and resolution, Carbon’s most unique and innovative offering is their wide variety of materials. Elastomers, high-temperature resins, and everything in between can be produced using the same machine. Some of the more exotic materials even feature 2-part mixtures to achieve specific properties in the completed part.
By focusing on speed, efficiency, and high part quality, HP and Carbon are taking the necessary steps to push 3DP into the mass-manufacturing space.
One of the biggest areas of concern is not centered around the physical capabilities of 3DP, but around its impact on the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights.
As 3DP technology becomes more attainable and capable, the ability to create physical parts increases. Concurrently, opportunities for IP infringement arise. Once a CAD file makes its way into virtual space through legal or illegal means, the ease with which digital files can be transferred makes controlling dissemination extremely difficult.
This loss of control becomes especially troublesome once 3DP enters the mainstream as a mass-manufacturing method. Parts will be designed and optimized specifically for 3DP, opening the door for counterfeiters to create exact replicas (as opposed to printed versions of parts designed for other manufacturing processes). Copyrights, trademarks, and patents all serve as safeguards in this space, but each varies in its ability to protect the IP holder.
This issue is too vast to cover here, but our ability to control the ownership of ideas must increase more rapidly than the ability to plagiarize. Unless the systems for IP protection are robust, 3DP will have a difficult time expanding beyond its current applications.
What does it all mean?
The definitive question is whether or not 3DP is ready for prime time as a high-volume manufacturing technique. At present, the simple response is no.
3DP still has a long way to go. Barriers to wider acceptance include cost, print speed, uncertainty of final product quality, and lack of talent. With time, cost will decrease while speed and part quality will rise.
Lack of talent is a more complex case. To compete with more established, high-volume production techniques, massive print farms will require technicians to run and maintain 3DP machines. This requires specialized knowledge that must be taught and developed. As traditional blue-collar jobs are lost, displaced workers are in position to potentially fill this void. These jobs will exist in the near future, and focus needs to shift towards cultivating the technical expertise required in this growing field. Print farms, with their need for a skilled workforce, represent an enormous opportunity to affect the economy in a far-reaching way.
While OTHR is currently a unique case, its presence indicates a need to start taking 3DP seriously as a manufacturing process. It is not the solution for every product, but it is viable under the right circumstances.
Although 3D printing is struggling to shake its identity as pre-production/prototyping technology, its enormous growth over the past decade signals that it will soon emerge as a full-fledged high-volume manufacturing method. Entire industries need to prepare for this impending business shift, looking towards a more nimble, fast-paced future.