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How 3D Printing for Rapid Manufacturing Is Pushing Boundaries

(This post is based on the video, “3D Printing for Rapid Manufacturing,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

Most products you buy in a store are mass-manufactured using costly processes such as injection molding. While this lets us produce a wide variety of products, it also requires designing and manufacturing expensive tools.

That takes time and money, and the more complicated the part, the more expensive the tool. That works fine if you’re producing millions of parts, but for production runs in the thousands, it’s usually not cost-effective.

In the near future, that’s going to change. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has made short-run production of complicated parts a more viable option. With special printers like HP’s Multi Jet Fusion, companies can produce large quantities of parts faster and for less money, in a variety of materials and designs.

Advanced 3D printing is also opening doors to lighter, more efficient parts; new levels of customization; and simplified supply chains.

How does advanced 3D printing make complex parts more accessible?

With traditional manufacturing, we’re limited to simpler parts that usually take more than a month to receive. Advanced 3D-printing techniques make it possible to design complex parts and receive up to thousands of them in as little as a week.

3D printing also makes it possible to simplify otherwise complicated parts. A part that might be manufactured in multiple pieces and require fasteners, seals, inserts and additional assembly steps can be made as a single part that’s functional right off the production line.

How is 3D printing pushing design boundaries?

As far as I’m concerned, the most exciting aspect of 3D printing for rapid manufacturing is how it’s pushing the boundaries of design. Features that would be impossible to pull off using conventional manufacturing methods are made feasible with 3D printing.

Some companies are already exploring this through limited production runs of innovative products. One example is the award-winning, 3D-printed faucets in American Standard’s DXV line. These are the first residential faucets produced using 3D printing. The Vibrato faucet is a latticework of narrow, hollow tendrils that converge at the top and produce water seemingly from nowhere.

Features that would be impossible to pull off using conventional manufacturing methods are made feasible with 3D printing.

Making these waterways structurally sound, lightweight, and hollow would be extremely difficult and expensive using conventional methods. For 3D printing, features like this are a breeze and dramatically decrease tooling costs. That means American Standard can sell fewer of these faucets and still turn a profit. They don’t need a production run in the millions, and they can get a little more experimental with their design.

What’s the industrial manufacturing potential?

GE is using advanced 3D printing to shake up its manufacturing and design, too. At the company’s Additive Technology Center in Ohio, its printers produce intricate fuel nozzles for the world’s largest jet engine; ribbed gearbox covers for the GE Catalyst (the first turboprop engine with 3D printed parts); and fuel heaters with honeycombed channels. In the case of the Catalyst, 3D printing allowed GE to combine 855 parts into twelve (!), which reduced weight, simplified the supply chain, and improved the engine’s overall performance.

GE also used additive manufacturing to redesign brackets on its GEnx jet engine. Originally, the company milled the brackets out of a solid block of aluminum. By 3D printing on a Concept Laser machine, GE was able to reduce the brackets’ weight and cost, as well as minimize production waste. GE even got the redesigned brackets to production in less than a year.

What are the limits of advanced 3D printing?

As promising as 3D printing is as a manufacturing option, we don’t want to oversell it. 3D printing products like the Vibrato faucet can’t be done with your run-of-the-mill, resin-based 3D printers. To compete on the scale of mass manufacturing, you need more advanced 3D printers that can work with materials like nylon (HP Multi Jet Fusion) or metal (GE’s SLS printers) and produce a higher volume per unit of time.

The problem is that these printers are still rather expensive. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printers start around $50,000. To advance its 3D printing, GE had to acquire the German firm Concept Laser. That deal cost the company $599 million. The high cost of advanced 3D printing is reflected in the price of products. That Vibrato faucet costs nearly $20,000, and GE spent $400 million to develop the GE Catalyst.

At these prices, 3D printing can’t yet compete with traditional manufacturing, which is relatively inexpensive, especially overseas. We’ll need to see a dramatic decrease in cost before it’s widely adopted, and that’s hard to predict because so many factors come into play, including politics and trade wars.

What kinds of design-driven advancements are we seeing?

Still, 3D printing does have benefits that injection molding and conventional manufacturing can’t compete with. Right now, it’s being driven by design because it offers designers avenues to realize their products in ways that traditional manufacturing can’t.

For example, 3D printing has created new avenues for customization. IKEA Israel is working with a partner to 3D-print furniture add-ons (like easier-to-grab handles and couch lifts) that make products more accessible. Customers can pick and choose from thirteen items and 3D-print the ones that suit them right at home. Examples like this are few and far between, but they’ll likely become more common thanks to 3D printing.

Additive manufacturing is also getting a push from biomedical and robotics companies. Researchers are experimenting with ways to 3D print things like porous titanium bone replacements and self-healing hydrogels that could be used for robots with delicate grips.

How can you advance innovation with 3D printing?

Many applications are still conceptual and experimental, but I believe 3D printing could be a more mainstream manufacturing option in as few as five to 10 years. I’m excited by how these new tools will continue to lead to new thinking on the part of designers and engineers. Will it cause companies to rethink their product lines to make them more innovative? I hope so.

As a designer or engineer, how can you stretch your thinking to implement these newer technologies? Using these methods, you’ll be able to simplify assembly, cut production costs, and make your end product more innovative.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free eBook, Design Defined, vol 1.