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Rain Wang couldn't have started the sunglasses manufacturing company Skelmet Inc. without the customization capabilities of 3D printing. Indeed, the technology is what enabled a vision to become a physical reality, albeit one that still needs financial backing from crowdsourced investors.
Skelmet, co-founded by Wang and James Cao in Cambridge, Mass., uses algorithmic scanning to capture the unique shapes of an individual's head to create customized sunglasses. But the process would have ended there if not for a 3D printer's ability to shape nylon plastic into eyewear that, Wang said, is perfectly tailored for each customer's distinctive facial contours.
"3D printing technology is absolutely amazing for customized products," she said. "It creates small structures, [which] traditional molding can't do."
Benefits of 3D printing coming to production processes
Skelmet is one of many companies either complementing or moving past long-standing manufacturing methods, such as molding, to embrace the flexibility and responsiveness of 3D printing.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing's agile ability to turn digital models into solid objects continues to attract attention, and now has many manufacturing companies adding the technology to their production processes, even if they outsource the printing capability itself.
Just over 70% of manufacturers have found a way to use 3D printing, according to a 2016 survey by PwC and the Manufacturing Institute. Prototyping is currently the most popular use, with just over a third of manufacturers using additive manufacturing for prototyping only. But that use is expanding. Although many once saw 3D printing as best confined to low-volume specialty use, 52% of manufacturers now expect to use the technology in high-volume production processes within the next five years.
Fortune 500 companies, such as General Electric, Boeing and Ford, have made headlines for incorporating 3D printing into their in-house parts manufacturing processes. But beyond the headlines, many other companies recognize the potential of 3D printing and are closely researching how and when they should invest in the technology, according to Jack Beuth, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering.
Additive manufacturing for innovation, efficiency
Manufacturers of metal components have a particularly strong interest in 3D printing, and are trying to figure out the specific benefits of 3D printing in terms of their production processes, Beuth said of the companies that consult with Carnegie Mellon's Next Manufacturing Center, of which he is the director. These companies are reviewing capital and labor costs before purchasing the printers, while many others, for now, are outsourcing 3D printing. A few are buying the machinery, he said.
Far removed from Cambridge and the plastics of sunglasses, Vector Space Systems also sees potential in 3D printing and, last year, used it to create a fuel injector that's been successfully tested on one of the company's rocket engines. Vector hopes that 3D printing can someday make a space-ready injector that weighs less than those made with a traditional lathe. In the aerospace industry, weight reduction in even fractions can save big money in the long run of rocket production.
"With 3D printing, we can create an internal lattice structure that's more hollow and makes the injector lighter," Vector CTO John Garvey said.
By creating a honeycomb injector structure that's almost as strong as a conventionally produced one, unnecessary solid material can be removed. There are still many more tests to conduct -- including those that must assure the residual powders of printing don't obstruct any injector orifices -- but Garvey believes, if progress continues, in a few years, Vector will strongly consider purchasing its own industrial 3D printer to at least complement lathe manufacturing.
"Cost is definitely an element, but for us, we're not trying to save on costs," Garvey said. "We're looking for innovation and turning around rocket fuel performance. We'll even pay more for that."
Cost complicates the benefits of 3D printing
Despite the widespread interest noted in the PwC and Manufacturing Institute survey, manufacturers noted strong barriers to adoption, and cost was an important one. But, like additive manufacturing itself, the issue has many layers.
Large companies that can afford 3D printing should purchase a machine not just for basic production, but also for developing prototypes for testing or tooling, Carnegie Mellon's Beuth said. Companies that use metal 3D printers can also work outside of variable sets, and can use different powers in the machine -- both value-added features of such an investment.
Jack BeuthCarnegie Mellon College of Engineering
"If you can make any kind of positive cost-effect argument for buying a machine now, you should do it, because 3D printing is progressing," Beuth said. Particularly, "3D printing for metals is in the same place now that personal computers were in the mid-1980s. As that [progression] showed, things change fast."
Still, cost is a challenge for small companies and entrepreneurs, and they will have to outsource, sending computer-aided design files to 3D printing farms, Beuth said.
That's what Spencer Wright, a product designer who owns a single-person shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., does. He designs high-end bicycle components and sends the configurations to a metal 3D printing farm to manufacture. He also has experience with polymer 3D printing, an area that Beuth sees as the next to advance.
"Some companies are building entire business models around 3D printing," Wright said. "Every manufacturing technology has its limitations, and that's true of 3D printing. But it has unique and interesting design challenges, and that's fascinating. There's a chance to explore this new kind of design and create a line of parts."
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