Future 3DP will complement, not supplant, machining

GE Aviation will utilize 3D printers to manufacture fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine. Made in Space has partnered with NASA engineers to launch a 3D space ready printer in 2014 and put a more advanced, public version on the International Space Station by 2015. CRP has created Energica Ego, a 3D printed electric motorcycle. Is manufacturing as we know it undergoing a revolution?

Hardly, as executives at NASA’s Office of the CIO readily admit. Jet design can be perfected on a printer, but the final product is still manufactured by machinists, who offer superior structural durability, material choice and finishing services. Meanwhile, CRP only printed a motorcycle body, not the mechanical or electrical guts that still had to be manufactured traditionally. It would appear that additive manufacturing (AM) is limited to prototypes which then require professional post-processing to be commercially viable. Most of what we have seen is hype.

On the other hand, it will be interesting whether the hype develops into reality in the next few decades. The beauty of 3D printing (3DP) is that it replaces the different components and phases of assembly with a single, complex print job, reducing the necessity for retooling, part numbers, inventory, labor and inspection. Moreover, the structural complexity can be precisely calculated to produce partially hollow objects, with just enough of a lattice inside to render it sound while minimizing weight and material. In unique scenarios where current alternatives are simply inferior – emergency spare parts in outer space, or personalized medical devices such as hearing aids, or customized personal items, or disaster relief in remote areas – AM/3DP, supported by service centers like Shapeways, will generate new industries, disrupting supply chains, retail and business models. Already, it has sped up and lowered costs of development, a function which will further evolve as printers become capable of extruding a wider array of metal alloys.

Though this technology presents great potential for niche markets and entrepreneurs with CAD experience, in the future it will complement, but never be an alternative to commercial production. Besides a weaker Z axis inherent in the layering technique, another limitation of AM/3DP is maximum object size and quantity. Materials for extrusion, expanded from just plastics to a single basic metal or ceramic, are more expensive than the raw material. Unless one unique item is required, production will likely be cheaper using the traditional route, and becomes prohibitively expensive when the requested product no longer fits in the palm of your hand. Casts for a metal part can be used to rapidly produce many identical parts, while a printer is still working on the first. Due to all these detriments, AM/3DP will not supplant current manufacturing or machinists any more than TV killed the radio or digital made photographers obsolete. It may reduce the necessity for warehouse stocking or shipping and decentralize production, but it will not render programming, design, skilled craftsmen or precision machining processes extinct.

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