3D printing: Beyond the hype

At the recent Engineering Design Show Conference, a panel session looked at the realities behind the hype of 3D Printing. Paul Fanning reports.

Participants: Graham Bennett, Technical Director, CRDM; Rob Jeffries, 3D Printing and 3D Scanning Consultant, Inition; Stijn De Rijck, Marketing Manager, Materialise; Mark Hester, Principal of Design Development, PDD Group Problems GB: "The main problems for the technology are: the speed of production of parts, which is a couple of orders of magnitude slower than other manufacturing techniques; the quality of materials, which is nowhere near good enough for manufacturing applications (the only exception to which would be metals, which are certainly improving in leaps and bounds); and the sheer cost of running the machines." SDR: "You can build almost anything perfectly using 3D printing. The only question is why you would do that when you can make it faster and more cheaply using another technology? " GB: "Qualifications and standards are a big issue. If an injection-moulded part is produced to the goods inwards department, the guys there know what to look for and know what standards they're working to, but if we produce a 3D-printed part, there are no standards to work to so they have a great deal of difficulty approving the part." Hype and misconceptions GB: The press – picking up the story about 15 years later than the engineering community – is stating that it's going to be a manufacturing revolution. The danger for me is that this hype actually kills it off because it doesn't deliver what it's said to deliver, so it receives less and less interest." SDR: If you believe the press, then by next year we will all be wearing 3D printed clothes and driving a 3D printed car. And, of course, people will get disappointed by this. I would expect that in the next year, there will be a lot of disappointment from people who thought that 3D printing would change their lives and it definitely won't do that. MH: "I think there's a misconception that you can just press a button and get a great part. A bad design is a bad design however you make it and if you don't understand the reasons why it's a bad design, then 3D printing it won't help you. RJ: The problem we have now is that it's been in the media so much that people have unrealistic expectations. In the next 5-10 years, the price will come down and there will be moves to multiple materials. Those things will happen, but good development takes time GB: I've been doing this since 1995. The arrival of rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, freeform manufacturing, 3D Printing – whatever you want to call it – was always just a couple of years away in terms of its widespread use in industry – and it probably still is. MH: "We still have clients who, when they see a prototype say 'Great! Let's hit the button,' thinking it's a finished product. There's a lot of education that has to go on there." Advances, Advantages and Opportunities SDR: "There are a number of industries that have changed significantly as a result of 3D printing. For instance, if you look at orthopaedic surgery or hearing aids, these are industries that have been turned upside down by 3D printing. For people in business, it is important to keep an eye on 3D printing to see if it can change their industry as well. Because if it has the potential to change it, it will." MH: You can iterate very quickly. You can find a problem and solve it more quickly – as long as you understand the process of solving it. RJ: "Obviously, it was created as a prototyping tool and is embedded in a lot of industries as such. As the material development has improved, though, certainly the metals are now capable of being used in manufacturing. They are now mimicking more classic manufacturing materials." MH: "We've used additive manufacturing for over 10 years and it's nothing new in that context. However, where we have noticed the difference is in the surface finishes and the materials. So when we used to get a prototype in, there was still a lot of hand finishing required. These days, that time is compressed. It's now hours rather than days." Advice SDR: "We believe at Materialise that 3D printing should be part of every designer's toolbox. But that means that designers have to learn to design using 3D printing not just as a prototyping technology, but as a manufacturing technology. We have a number of companies who were early adopters and they send us their files and they're still designed for injection moulding. And that's from people who have a familiarity with the technology." MH: It requires a different way of thinking. It's not just a tweak to the way we did things before and it's not just about being able to get parts faster. If you want to design a part for 3D printing, you really do have to think differently in terms of how the part's constructed, how it will support, how it will function, surface finish – all those things. However, because we're producing prototypes all the time, so time is of the essence – and that's where 3D printing really wins. RJ: "If you know you're going to be using 3D printing for the end product, it allows the designer to be much closer to the final product. A lot of the time, you will have a conceptual design that goes through a design engineering process that means you lose a lot of design intent in that. Whereas, if you have a 3D printed product, a designer can really think about the final product and include all the functionality from the beginning of a design, which is one of the really powerful things that 3D printing brings." SDR: "Choose the right application for 3D printing. Materialise created 3D print Barometer where we showed the three most important parameters on which to base any 3D printing design. If you want your parts 3D printed and they are end use components, then they will have to be treated completely differently to how they would if they were simply being rapid prototyped. Make sure they're not treated as prototypes." RJ: "Talk to the experts first. Use the expertise of the bureaux – they want you to use 3D printing, so ask them. Also, use tools like MiniMagics, which is a Materialise tool for testing files to see what's wrong with any CAD file for 3D printing." GB: "If you're going to use 3D printing, you must consider the CAD package you use and how you're going to use it." The Future GB: "It's brilliant – absolutely fantastic – for prototyping, it's very good for some limited, low-volume series applications, but the general conception that it's going to dominate manufacturing is, I think, wrong. It's a very good tool, but like CNC, casting, etc, it's just a tool. It's never going to be the only manufacturing method people use." RJ: "There are now companies in, for instance, the dental industry, who are now building manufacturing plants that have no manufacturing machines other than 3D printers. They allow the flexibility of not having to build tools and the machines produce whatever's on the file you give them. In that way, it becomes a manufacturing plant that allows you to change what you're manufacturing very easily. In any application where that applies, 3D printing will be used." SDR: "Five years ago, wherever I went, I felt I knew more than almost all the people I was talking to. Now it's the other way around and they're telling me things I didn't know." GB: "The companies in the market aren't big enough to change the industry quickly. HP withdrew in part because the market wasn't as advanced as they thought it would be." The notable exception is in metal printing machines. They have a great advantage in that they're printing in known materials. I think if you're going to see a big uptake in the use of additive manufacturing. It will be in metals simply because of the quality of materials you can get." MH: "I think in terms of the 'Prosumer' market. You're going to see a lot of awful Yoda key rings and in a lot of cases, the 3D printer will go the same way as the breadmaker and go back in the cupboard – never to return. In terms of the pro market, though, it will find and establish its places." SDR: "For a number of industries where mass customisation is a requirement, it will turn them upside down."