3D tech­nol­ogy

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - CONTENTS - By An­drea Köhn

Al­most un­no­ticed, rev­o­lu­tion­ary 3D pro­duc­tion tech­nolo­gies have emerged with­out any mean­ing­ful in­put from big play­ers. In­stead, the ini­tia­tives have come from re­searchers, small start-ups and hob­by­ists in their garages who ex­per­i­mented with print­ing three-di­men­sional stuff.

Still, 3D print­ing is not with­out his­tory. Long be­fore the in­ter­net changed the world, laser-based pro­cesses for in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions had been de­vel­oped, e.g. for the man­u­fac­ture of pro­to­types and mod­els to be used in the pro­duc­tion of lim­ited num­bers of work pieces and build­ing com­po­nents.

Dif­fer­ent to the in­jec­tion mould­ing pro­cesses, 3D print­ing by­passes the labour-in­ten­sive set-up of jigs, to­gether with the var­i­ous pro­cesses of cut­ting, lath­ing and drilling. The 3D rev­o­lu­tion’s so­cial and eco­nomic reper­cus­sions are mak­ing them­selves felt. Es­pe­cially in the field of tool sys­tem tech­nol­ogy, con­struc­tion com­po­nent pro­duc­tion, med­i­cal de­vice tech­nol­ogy and the con­sumer goods in­dus­try, 3D print tech­nol­ogy oc­cu­pies an im­mensely im­por­tant place.

Three-D print­ing not only sup­plants tra­di­tional pro­cesses, but ac­cel­er­ates in­no­va­tion by the in­stant cre­ation of solid pro­to­types and tan­gi­ble tem­plates has nu­mer­ous ben­e­fits.

In the con­sumer space, unit costs of mass-pro­duced ar­ti­cles will al­ways stay be­low those of cus­tom­ized man­u­fac­ture, yet at the very mar­gins, some share of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process may well be taken over by the con­sum­ing pub­lic it­self.

It would hardly be a detri­ment to the econ­omy, since th­ese un­af­fil­i­ated man­u­fac­tur­ers still need 3D tech­nol­ogy be­sides ma­te­ri­als and sup­port….at the same time cre­at­ing brand new lines of busi­ness, e.g. print­ing ser­vices for those who are re­luc­tant to in­vest in a 3D printer them­selves. We all re­call the un­real rates a square foot of dig­i­tal print­ing on fab­rics com­manded back in its early years.

Birth pangs

Hewlett Packard was the first of the large press man­u­fac­tur­ers to en­ter the 3D printer busi­ness. Be­tween 2010 and 2012, the com­pany struck an al­liance with Is­raeli-Amer­i­can firm Strata­sys.

The re­sult were de­vices with the names HP De­sign­jet 3D and HP De­sign­jet Colour 3D, which are no longer on the mar­ket.

Meg Whit­mann, HP’s CEO, says: “Three-D prin­ters are still in their in­fancy. It’s a great op­por­tu­nity and we are very much com­mit­ted [to them]. By the mid­dle of 2014, we will have some­thing to show.”

The strength of HP’s con­vic­tion may be some­what de­bat­able, though, since Whit­man stressed that ac­tual rev­enue flow from the sec­tor to the bot­tom line is a long way off.

In­deed, pa­tience is the or­der of the day, not the least be­cause the costs of ef­fi­cient 3D prin­ters re­main out of reach for many, as is the raw print­ing ma­te­rial, the va­ri­ety and se­lec­tion of which still leaves much to be de­sired.

In ad­di­tion, the cur­rent ma­chines run at an ag­o­niz­ingly slow pace. Whith­man de­scribed it say­ing: “To print a bot­tle may take eight to 10 hours. All quite in­ter­est­ing, but it feels like watch­ing grass grow.”

Nev­er­the­less, 3D print­ing is a rev­o­lu­tion of pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy. Right now, 3D print­ing is mostly lim­ited to CAD sup­ported laser cut­ters, lathes or in­jec­tion mould­ing ma­chines, yet new ideas have ben­e­fited all in­dus­tries over time.

Time is now

In­cor­po­rat­ing 3D print­ing into the canon of print­ing tech­nolo­gies as a fourth pil­lar next to let­ter­press, off­set and dig­i­tal print is the right thing to do; no half-way mea­sures, please.

Sing its praises in high schools, vo­ca­tional train­ing classes, pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions, and es­pe­cially, com­pa­nies.

The time is now to de­fine and hone busi­ness mod­els, for as you sow, so you shall reap.

Get­ting your feet wet in 3D print­ing is rel­a­tively easy. Build­ing sets and ap­pa­ra­tuses for be­gin­ners can be had for around $ 600. Pro­fes­sional ma­chines sell from $ 6000. But th­ese ma­chines, used in in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions, are un­der a great deal of pric­ing pres­sure. Anal­o­gous to 2D print­ing equip­ment, three cat­e­gories of ma­chin­ery have also emerged in the 3D sec­tor: for home use, for pro­fes­sion­als, and for in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tion.

Two dozen man­u­fac­tur­ers are of­fer­ing so­lu­tions for the press floor. Most of them were in­spired by the RepRap project, orig­i­nally con­ceived by Adrian Bowyer, a pro­fes­sor for evo­lu­tion­ary re­search at Bath Univer­sity in Eng­land.

RepRap stands for Repli­cat­ing RapidPro­to­typer and is a 3D print­ing press, the blue­print of which Bowyer had pub­lished un­der a GNU gen­eral pub­lic li­cence with the goal to achieve rapid pro­lif­er­a­tion. Ven­dors such as Ul­ti­maker and Mak­i­box fol­low in its foot­steps. The best-known Amer­i­can maker of 3D prin­ters, Mak­erbot used to be a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. Since 2013, it is a sub­sidiary of Strata­sys.

The English man­u­fac­turer Bits from Bytes was also bought out. The com­pany started with the 3D printer RapMan, a com­mer­cial ver­sion of the open source hard­ware RepRap Dar­win.

In Oc­to­ber 2010, it was taken over by 3D Sys­tems in the US. Re­sources for re­search and pro­duc­tion at its main plant are at the limit of their ca­pac­i­ties; for those rea­sons, 3D Sys­tems plans an ad­di­tional site.

World leader for in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions in the sec­tor is EOS GmbH, based in Krailling near Mu­nich.

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