Would you fly in an airplane that was produced by a 3D printer?
Don’t be too quick to say “No.” As a recent article in Industry Week (”Mastering the Hybrid Factory”) makes clear, that possibility is a lot closer than most people imagine. In fact, according to the article, the engine-maker Pratt and Whitney has already flight-tested engines containing 3D printed parts, and is now in the process of having them certified for commercial use.
Here is a video, filmed at the 3D Printshow in London, which shows the various items that can now be 3D printed: (click on image to view video)
3D printing (or additive manufacturing as it’s also known) has been used for a few decades for prototyping new products. As I wrote in my last blog post, it gives design engineers the ability to rapidly produce prototypes and has closed the gap between design and build, shortening new product introductions and saving some manufacturers millions of dollars.
But now the technology is starting to move to the actual production floor in some applications. And if you think the manufacturing world has seen a lot of change in recent years, you haven’t seen anything yet!
Start with the issue of waste. Traditional manufacturing methods are “subtractive,” meaning material is removed by milling and cutting until the piece has reached the desired dimensions. By contrast, 3D printing is “additive,” meaning material is built up layer by layer until the piece is finished. As a result, there is literally zero material waste. It’s the ultimate Lean manufacturing method.
Another advantage is the ability to manufacture certain geometries, such as hollow parts, that would be impractical with traditional methods. Pratt and Whitney COO Paul Adams says in the article, “With these technologies, you can make parts that have geometries that are not achievable using investment casting or tooling.” He adds, “… a technology that allows us to make hollow parts that weigh less and are less expensive to produce is very, very powerful.”
The real revolution, however, may be the possibility of using 3D printing to achieve mass customization, where we can produce parts and products that are individually customized by order. It’s the ultimate “build to an order of one” concept. Since Henry Ford invented the production line, mass production has meant making the same part exactly the same way, over and over.
For the first time in a hundred years, that may be changing.
Dave Burns, COO and president of ExOne, an additive manufacturer, says in the article: “The ability to, at zero additional cost, truly customize every product you make in the same manufacturing sequence is something we have talked about forever in manufacturing, but there hadn’t been a practical way to do it. Well, now there is.”
Of course, there are still limitations. For one, 3D printing is currently too slow for most manufacturing applications, and the technology is only beginning to be production-ready. But for many uses, 3D printing is simply too powerful a technology to ignore. And it is taking off fast.
If your design processes and manufacturing operations are having trouble keeping up in today’s manufacturing world, it might be time to look up. That plane you hear overhead could be the competition flying right past you.