Behind the hype

Most engineers want to get their hands on a 3D printer, and the hype behind the sector is as strong as ever. But, how does the world’s premier manufacture of machines view future prospects?

Things are changing according to those developing tech under the broad banner of Industry 4.0. Whether you belong to a start-up or multi-national, engineers are reportedly going about product development differently. From simulation to connecting products, there are a number of emerging trends creeping in to everyone’s ‘must look in that’ list.

But there is one tech that is still on every design engineer’s Christmas list, and that is the 3D printer. The hype is palpable. So, what does the chief business officer of Stratasys, a market leader in this space, think of it all?

“We are at the beginning of something that is going to shake up the world,” said Claman.

While this might sound like an over statement of someone keen to keep the hype machine going, Claman has a long reputation within the technology industry as a man that says what he means, and means what he says.

“If you look at what’s happened in prototyping, we have already disrupted that process,” he said. “When you put an additive technology in a [physical] prototyping environment, traditional technologies, like CNC or model making, get pushed out. They’re just not as good.”

Stratasys, in its current incarnation, has evolved from a merger between two 3D printing companies in Israeli based Objet and US based Stratasys. The move has also brought together two different 3D printing technologies in Objet’s PolyJet and Stratasys’ fused deposition modelling (FDM). While PolyJet technology offers fine features and product realism, FDM is able to print real thermoplastics with corresponding mechanical properties, enabling genuine functional testing to happen much earlier.

“Companies have seen prototyping cycles go from weeks to, in many cases, one day,” said Claman. “I might not produce them on a 3D printer but if the result is so realistic that I can get an order before I start production, the pressure and de-risking benefit is huge. It’s not only changing the prototyping time frame, but how people take new products to market.”

However, all 3D printers are not created equally and the market has seen a number of lower end machines start to crowd the marketplace. While schools find them a great way of stimulating students by printing Yoda heads and Eiffel Tower’s, do these tools really have a place in a design office alongside the more industrial Stratasys machines?

“Small machines are not going to displace high performance machines, but they definitely have a place,” said Claman. “What we are seeing is a that they’re going to be used at different points in the same workflow.

“For example, I’ll do my drafts, just me, personally, as a design engineer, that I might not even show anyone on something like a MakerBot. When I’m happy with it and ready to escalate it I’ll print out on an industrial machine. I might use one machine to do a version that’s a functional prototype, and maybe a different machine to do a fine finish realistic prototype. You look at our big customers like General Electric, it has big industrial printers but also a lot of MakerBots. It mimics that workflow that we see increasingly developing.”

The key thing is that 3D printing is still developing and most – even the manufacturers – are still figuring out many of the emerging technology’s nuances. Those that have invested have quickly found themselves to be the most popular members of a company, as other departments see the capability and begin to brainstorm the potential.

“We are seeing the revitalisation of a profession called production engineering,” said Claman. “This is printing jigs, fixtures, assembly guides… we seeing that 3D printing is being used to improve things on the manufacturing floor.

“You might have a worker with small hands on one shift, and big hands in the next shift. That, ergonomically doesn’t work. Well, now you can print one for each user.”

Jigs and fixtures are relatively low volume but can be expensive items. Tooling also serves to lock in a design, with major changes often requiring new tooling. By contrast, a relatively low cost 3D printed tool can be replaced quickly and easily, allowing more design evolution, flexibility and customisation in the production space.

“This is capturing the imagination of plant managers across the world,” said Claman. “But, we are in the very early adoption phase, but the opportunities are massive. The beauty of it is you can tweak it, redesign it, and constantly make it better. Is it very iterative.”

The ability to evolve designs quickly means that for low volume applications 3D printing becomes a potential route for production. Though producing end use production parts using additive technology might seem somewhat inefficient, for low volume applications – especially with complicated geometry – the process offers a number of compelling advantages.

“At the moment this is a very small portion of revenue across the sector,” said Claman. “But, we are already seeing some great examples of where this could work, Airbus for example uses 1000 inflight 3D printed parts on their new A350.”

Aerospace’s natural yearning for more sweeping complex geometries, and by definition short run manufacture, make it a natural fit with the technology, as does applications in medical and dental.

“At the moment we are in the application discovery phase,” concluded Claman. “The adoption curve by vertical markets will change gradually, but right now we are now thinking, ‘what is the next thousand production parts?’