3D Printing: Is This A Real Manufacturing Revolution?

3D printing is great for rapid prototyping, but its use in commercial applications has yet to be proven.

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As a patterning guy I have been watching the 3D printing story with real interest. Can it deliver or its it hype ? I think that it’s an intriguing way to build prototypes and unique parts, but I’m unconvinced that it has any volume manufacturing role. In particular, I have a hard time seeing a business where you can make large numbers of copies of the same manufacturing tool – a key to a “home run” business.

3D printers work by depositing a series of drops of material at 3D locations to build up a component. As such, each drop represents a “pixel” in 3D space, and the printer addresses each pixel serially. A multi-pixel printer is clearly possible, but it is still a serial address of groups of pixels. You can think of it as a 3D ink jet printer, and it has similar materials limitations. They have to be printable. Plastic is the most common 3D printable material.

As for reality vs. hype, it’s a bit of both, and there have been several recent examples of both. A good example requires an embarrassing admission from me … I have been watching “Project Runway” (for my wife)! One of the designers made a series of different necklace and belt stylings using 3D printing. These are custom, one-off designs that need a high-quality finished look, so are perfect for 3D printing.

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A 3D printed necklace on the Project Runway TV show

At the Eco SXSW show in Austin last week, a division of Autotype showed an a 5 ft high demonstrator outdoors binocular stand structure. This is a really good example of making a part to get some real customer feedback.

Also at the Eco SXSW was a demonstrator of 3D printed food with a 3D printer for pizza dough and tomato sauce. I suppose there may be a market for kids’ parties, but it’s difficult to see how you could make enough for even a small kids party.

NASA has talked about using 3D printing in space so they do not need to stock spares, and also as a way to make space food more interesting. The NASA example illustrates a common difficulty: There just are not many satellites up there, unless of course we make enough of a mess of this planet that we all need to move. It is clear that 3D printing is great for unique parts, preferably plastic.

Injection-molded plastic parts are notorious for high mold costs, making prototyping very expensive. A German injection molder, Robert Seuffer, GmbH & Co. KG, is using 3D printers from Stratasys Ltd. (SSYS) to make prototype molds.

It is clear there are plenty of excellent prototyping opportunities for 3D printing. The difficulty with prototyping is the inevitable every part is different, so it’s very difficult to build one machine to cover all the different part sizes and minimum feature sizes. To develop a successful manufacturing equipment business, you need to be able to make large numbers of identical copies. Inkjet printing is a great example of a application where there are large numbers of identically sized custom documents, so there is a market for huge numbers of identical printers.

The pros and cons for 3D printer manufacturing are familiar to anyone who has followed serial address semiconductor patterning systems. Electron-beam systems are serial address printers that are used for originating masks, but have failed in numerous attempts to be used even in low-volume production. The economics of building small numbers of electron-beam machines has been very difficult and has been reliant on end-user funding to survive. There have been similar stories with “NanoInk,” a nano inkjet printer and several systems based on Atomic Force Microscopy.

My take is that 3D printing is a terrific rapid prototyping tool, but I have a hard time seeing how there can be a “home run “ in the equipment business.