3D Printing – a device for supporting fast industrial innovation or simply one other approach of constructing Yoda heads?

While the dream of a 3D printer has not yet become a reality in every household, the momentous events of the past year have led to a shift in attitudes that seems to have accelerated the technology’s adoption, writes Dr. Phil Reeves

Question: What is the Similarity Between a French Aristocrat and a 3D Printing Professional?

Reply: They both startle when they hear the word revolution.

For the French establishment, the revolution was a rather unsavory reality. In 3D printing, it’s a glorified promise that for the most part has not come true, making many manufacturing companies and innovators skeptical of the technology.

But are we still right to be skeptical?

The promise of a 3D printer in every home or even in every hardware store has certainly not come true. However, the technology has constantly found new and innovative applications in almost all manufacturing sectors. 3D printing is now the de facto possibility of producing prototypes for form, fit and functional technology. 3D printing is also used extensively for manufacturing applications such as fixtures, assembly and cutting guides, and to create various tool cavities for processes such as blow molding, composite lay-up, and even sheet metal pressing. The real “revolutionary advantage” of 3D printing, however, has always been the promise of production parts, from CAD to part in one seamless digital step. For some companies, the early adopters, this has become a reality as medical implants, aerospace engine parts, and even cosmetic packaging are manufactured by the thousands. This enabled companies to quickly bring new and innovative products to market that take advantage of the design freedom of 3D printing and at the same time benefit from the zero inventory advantages of a digital supply chain. However, the journey has been long and full of technical challenges, from issues with process repeatability to lack of standards for parts testing. In short, evolution not revolution.

University of Nottingham engineers designed a CE-approved PPE face shield that they 3D printed to scale for healthcare workers. Image: University of Nottingham

To the casual observer, it may have looked like the adoption of 3D printing for the manufacture of end parts would gradually increase for some time – step by step. But then the world was turned upside down. A global pandemic, international trade disputes, Brexit, political and civil unrest. All the ingredients needed to disrupt the manufacturing supply chain when the world’s population was most needed. But a need for what?

Many 3D printing companies responded to Covid by increasing their capacity and streamlining their internal processes, lowering manufacturing costs while increasing responsiveness, knowledge and efficiency

There was a need for ventilators, respirators, personal protective equipment, face visors, oral test swabs, and no-touch door handles. With a broken supply chain and a world in crisis, 3D printing consumer parts was finally a solution to a problem, not a solution to finding a problem. Within a few weeks, new guidelines and framework conditions were drafted, agreed and disseminated. Fortunately, some of the supply lines were retained for 3D printing.

Almost 12 months later, we have left an exciting legacy – a less conservative attitude towards 3D printing. Many 3D printing companies responded to Covid by increasing their capacity and streamlining their internal processes, lowering manufacturing costs while increasing responsiveness, knowledge and efficiency. As the Covid threat graciously subsides, these companies are now ready to support a new world of faster, digital industrial innovation.

How can companies use 3D printing as a platform for innovation? The most important thing is to understand how 3D printing adds value to a product or service. At the product level, 3D printing enables us to leverage geometric complexity to either lower costs through parts consolidation or to increase product value through increased functionality. This functionality can be as simple as reducing weight through topology optimization or as complex as producing a highly efficient heat exchanger that goes far beyond the possibilities of existing designs. At the service level, 3D printing allows us to think differently about how we serve our customers’ needs. 3D printing can be an inexpensive way to move from high volume series products to custom or even personalized products that are mass produced in series sizes from one piece. The technology can also open up new possibilities for the delivery of parts to old and new customers through the concept of secure, digitally distributed manufacturing. For companies that want to provide components for a geographically different customer group, solutions are created with which production data can be processed securely and traceability at multiple 3D manufacturing locations at the same time. Allows new, replacement and replacement parts to be manufactured closer to the customer, reducing lead times and shipping costs, export duties and tariffs.

3D printing may not have ushered in the promised industrial revolution for the digital age. However, it can be a powerful tool that allows companies to think differently about the products and services they offer to their customers. I think we all agree that after all the fantastic and life saving innovations that have been printed in the past 12 months, technology is no longer limited to just printing Yoda heads.

Dr. Phil Reeves is the managing director of the 3D printing consultancy Reeves Insight Ltd and the commercial director of Added Scientific Ltd.