3D Printing: Reality Check
A few days back, on a trip to Delhi, I came across multiple hoardings across the city by a leading newspaper which asked a question that most (if not all) additive experts do not have a definitive answer to. I have been asking the same question to myself since the start of my Additive journey 4 years ago and I am quite certain that there is a long way till I am able to find one.
The question is – Is 3D printing reprinting the future?
While this is a difficult question to answer, I will give an attempt to do so and start with a ‘Yes’ while highlighting 3 important aspects that I will talk about later in this article. Through the course of this article I hope to dissect the question and try build a logical approach to the possibilities of 3D Printing. More importantly, define what is unfair to expect out of the technology.
Let me first define 3D Printing: 3D Printing is a manufacturing process, through which components/parts are built by successive deposition of material.
Three keywords in this definition – Manufacturing, Parts and Material are the three factors which need to be closely interlinked to guarantee the success of the problem statement. So, the answer to the question ‘Can 3D Printing do that?’ is ‘not always’.
Let’s dissect this further. Can 3D Printers manufacture everything? The answer is (though this may break some hearts) – ‘NO’. Can 3D Printers manufacture in every material that the world uses? Regretfully, the answer is NO there are many thermoplastics in the world but only 30 thermoplastics have been successfully proven to work with 3D Printing. Can 3D Printers print everything that you use today? Let’s say for example – A table tennis racket, the answer is yes, however it can’t be produced with the same life expectancy and cost.
Then why is there so much hype around the subject? The reason is that though there is awareness on the subject, there is limited understanding of the same. In other words, there is a gap in understanding the limitations of this technology.
Objects that are built today (from cars to pens) are not single body systems but complex multi-body assemblies which must interact perfectly with each other to be successful. The process to mass manufacture these products is risky and a costly affair. This gave birth to 3D printing, a method by which designers can quickly prototype the assembly and have a go/no-go for production.
Soon we realized that if the quantities are low and complexities are high, often it makes sense to build an end use part in a 3D Printer. We also realized that we have been making certain low quantity parts in a certain way (using certain materials) because we did not know of a better way to do it. A 3D printer can help make some of these components function better by improving the design and/or choosing an equivalent or a better material (in most cases lighter, without compromising on the material performance requirement). Today, 3D printed parts are flying in outer-space, are in many cars we drive, few commercial planes we fly every day and in many people’s body in the form of implants.
All these parts are different, not just in form (of course) but in terms of the process they were manufactured (printed) out of, the material used and, the pre and post manufacturing processes that they underwent.
The 3 important aspects that I spoke about earlier are (i) Process of Manufacturing, (ii) Material and (iii) Pre and Post Processing.
Most 3D printing experts find it difficult to clearly differentiate between 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing. For most, it is the same and indeed by literal definition of the two, they are the same but deep within the differences are large.
3D Printing is a subset of additive manufacturing. A similar analogy is that of picking the right colours, brushes and canvas etc is a subset of making the final painting. Similarly, the additive manufacturing process is:
Today the big challenge (funny though) with Additive Manufacturing is that while it can do tasks that no other manufacturing processes can, it still cannot do many things which other processes can do specifically traditional manufacturing processes. For example, you cannot efficiently build a water tanker with AM which is a simple job for the traditional process. But then the question is do we really need to use AM to build that component?
In industry opinion, it is considered a crime to build parts (excluding prototypes) that can be built with cheaper or easier methods in traditional processes. You can build a door knob using Additive Manufacturing, probably build it in plastic (instead of metal), cost will be higher than those available off the shelf and will also not add value to the part. Aerospace giants on the contrary are pumping millions into AM and building parts which are easily 3-4 times costlier than otherwise but in this case as it gives them the luxury to modify the geometry and a massive efficiency enhancement (in this case reduction in weight) to mint or save more from that initial high investment. Airbus proved that by optimizing the seat belt buckle design and reproducing it in AM, as they cut down the weight of the component to half which alone if replaced on all 500 odd seats in a single A380 will save them approximately 3 million euros of fuel. And that’s just one part. But an auto company trying to do that for all consumer cars does not make sense.
Also, if you look at successful adopters of AM, they have multiple technologies which together can be exploited to build better products (in both pre-manufacturing, and manufacturing scenarios) enabling them to move from Rapid Prototyping to Rapid Tooling and Production but again not in every case.
If we aim to replace all the parts in the world with AM, we will have less success but Additive
Manufacturing (contrary to popular belief) was never meant to replace traditional methods but to complement it.
To conclude AM can do a lot of things better and hence can re-invent the future BUT if exploited correctly.
Abhishek is Manager – Application Consultancy at Altem Technologies (P)Ltd. He holds a degree in Electrical Engineering and has over 4.5 years of experience in the additive manufacturing industry across 5 countries.