By Todd Grimm, Additive Manufacturing Users Group, AM Industry Advisor
3D Printing has been in use by major product designers and manufacturing companies for over 20 years now, and yet it is still considered in many ways a niche industry - even by many 3D printing companies!
My fundamental tenet is that phenomenal growth for 3D printing, as a production process, will occur only after industry stops trying to replicate what is already possible with conventional molding, machining, casting and fabrication. Simply replacing conventional processes with 3D printing undermines much of the value of this unique class of technology.
We can take a lesson from the earliest days of plastics. When merely replacing metal with no other changes, plastic was a cheap and often poor substitute. Plastics only began to take hold when manufacturers learned to capitalize on their advantages (light weight, corrosion resistance, ability to create intricate shapes etc). Once that corner was turned, usage surged as new plastics quickly came to market.
The same will be true for 3D printing.
There are a number of areas in which industry can leverage the uniqueness of 3D printing, including product designs, frequency of design changes and small production lot sizes. You can read about these in any pundit’s proclamation of its advantages. The one you rarely hear about - and the one I think holds the most promise, is material properties.
When trying to mimic the mechanical or thermal properties of plastics and metals, 3D printing does a pretty good job. But why limit 3D printing to the properties that are already available? Doing so negates the unique capabilities of this technology.
Following are some excellent examples where the industry has already unleashed some of the power of 3D printing in the area of materials:
Objet: Of the 107 materials (the most for any 3D printer) for the Objet Connex system, 90 are Digital Materials that are blended during the build process.
University of Exeter: Research has produced an aluminum composite, with exciting properties, that is formulated during the selective laser melting process.
Optomec: Both LENS (metals) and Aerosol Jet (direct write electronics and bio-printing) combine multiple materials during deposition.
Blending materials in the 3D printer yields a staggering number of properties. It also presents industry with an unmatched ability to produce parts with material properties that vary throughout the object (functionally graded materials).
Since this capability does not exist outside of 3D printing, we should learn to embrace 3D printing for what it can do that nothing else can. We must learn to accept that there is a limited future to matching the properties of conventionally made parts. So, don’t view 3D printing as a substitute. Instead, leverage this technology as an alternative that is capable of producing some very unique solutions to otherwise conventional problems.
- Todd Grimm is president of T. A. Grimm & Associates, a 3D printing consulting and communications company. He serves on the board of the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) as the AM industry advisor and is managing editor for ENGINEERING.com.