3D printing has moved from producing parts that look like the real thing, to manufacturing parts that are the real thing. This transformation from purely prototyping to tackling real-world manufacturing challenges is the result of the huge advances 3D printing – now known to many as additive manufacturing or simply ‘AM’ – technologies have seen in the last 20+ years.
Looking at contemporary, state-of-the-art 3D printing technologies such as fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective absorption fusion (SAF) and Programmable PhotoPolymerization or P3™ – an evolution of digital light processing (DLP) – it’s clear to see just how far they have come when compared to the earliest commercial systems in terms of accuracy, repeatability and material choice.
These technological developments have in turn led to increasing trust. Whilst, comparatively, technologies such as these are still relatively new in relation to traditional, age-old manufacturing methods, many advanced manufacturers are already trusting 3D printing/AM as a technology able to meet and exceed their expectations. Users trust that the economics of 3D printing stack up against other manufacturing technologies. End users trust 3D printed components in mission-critical applications. 3D printing cannot replace all forms of manufacturing, but when the application fits the technology, 3D printing should be thought of in the same way as injection moulding or CNC machining: the right tool for the job. Indeed, it’s a highly competitive tool which is making practical and economic sense for more jobs, applications and sectors year on year.
Unfortunately, 3D printing is still all too often spoken about as an ‘emerging’ technology or as some kind of science fiction by mainstream voices and even across the wider manufacturing world. However, when you so much as scratch the surface of the most successful, leading manufacturing businesses across almost every sector, you can almost guarantee that AM has been successfully integrated into their operations for some time or, at the very least, is a part of the company’s growth plan looking ahead. Whilst there is no doubt still areas in which AM will continue to mature over the coming years, for those advanced manufacturers who are embracing and trusting in the technology today, it is already making its mark and proving its value as a viable and profitable manufacturing solution.
By leveraging SAF technology in one of our own AutoMeasure production tools, for example, we have been able to reduce operator time by a staggering 287 hours each year – truly bringing the vast potential of such technologies for the wider market into focus. Similarly, UK-based Rivelin Robotics have been able to utilise SAF technology to streamline their robotic post-processing systems with custom 3D printed parts uniquely tailored to specific performance features and functionalities – with the ability to prototype, test and iterate quickly and efficiently by the very nature of AM.
Often the problems that 3D printing can solve are novel and the applications areas new. To this end, people might not even be thinking about 3D printing when addressing their problem – and shifting this mindset is one of the most critical barriers to unlocking the true potential of AM. That is one of the reasons Stratasys has verticalized its offering and is venturing beyond the so-called ‘3D printing industry’ as a whole, standalone market landscape. To really effect change and drive adoption, we need to address different segments of manufacturers in their own language, using examples that relate to them and their peers. That means 3D printing solutions tailored specifically to vertical application areas that focus on addressing specific manufacturing challenges rather than the technology that enables it. In reality, few business set out seeking 3D printing specifically, they simply want solutions to their challenges – whether this be the manufacture of end-use parts for automotive, aerospace and industrial applications, or producing prototypes, medical models or implants.
When the reaction to ‘I work in 3D printing’ is the same as it is to ‘I work in manufacturing’ we will truly have made the leap from prototyping to manufacturing in the eyes of the wider world. Today, we must start to think it and say it ourselves.