Are we on the cusp of a 3D printing revolution?

10 February 2015

At the 2014 IHS Industrial Automation Conference, Alex Chausovsky, senior principal analyst, Industrial Automation at IHS, focused on developments in 3D printing, which many believe will be integral to the success of Industry 4.0. Suzanne Gill reports.

3D printing technology has been around since the mid 1980s. Recent growth in its use has come as a result of patent expiry. In 2009, the patents for fused deposition modelling (FDM) technology expired, which has resulted in a boom in the availability of consumer-grade 3D printers.  Similar things are happening with selective laser sintering (SLS) technology. In 2014 and 2015 the main patents surrounding the SLS technique will also expire which will inevitably result in more entrants into this market too, with cost reductions of up to a factor of 10 expected over the next five to 10 years.
The fall in cost of 3D printing equipment offers big opportunities for industrial manufacturers. “Tools, moulds, fuel injection nozzles for jet engines, gas turbine parts are all products that are benefitting from 3D printing technology – whether that is for prototype parts or end-use part production,” said Chausovsky.

3D printing incorporates a variety of different technologies and techniques. The original 3D printing technology is called stereolithography (SLA) and it involves liquid photopolymers being cured using UV light. Another technology, and the one which Chausovsky believes will have the biggest big impact on the industrial sector, is called powder bed fusion. This includes processes such as SLS, direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective heat sintering (SHS) and electron beam melting EBM, which sees thermal energy, typically lasers, being used to fuse material in a bed of powder.

Another interesting technology is directed energy deposition (DED) which also uses powders, but instead of utilising a powder bed, a laser beam is projected onto a surface, creating a melt pool into which the powder is injected.

Another technology increasingly being used in industrial applications is binder jetting. This process sees either metal or plastic powders being bound together, layer-by-layer, using a specialised glue and then cured in an oven. This can create very dense parts of good quality and strength.

Design innovation
3D printing has the ability to increase the innovation of design. Using the technology, engineers are able to quickly design products for function rather than just form and fit, and can make changes quickly.  This is a revolutionary approach. Traditionally, there has been weeks, or longer, between design product iterations. Today it can be achieved in hours or days.  This has the secondary effect of speeding up time to market for most product development. It can also reduce development and production costs by using less material. “It is often possible to use 40 – 70% less material to manufacture the same product, when designed using 3D technology,” said Chausovsky. “With additive manufacturing you only lay down the material needed to produce the part, as opposed to the more traditional subtractive manufacturing process which sees the product being formed by cutting away from a block of material, creating a great deal of waste.”

To date, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been limited in their use of 3D printing technology due to its high costs, with many industrial-grade machines, particularly those that work with metals, ranging in cost from $0.5 million to upwards of $2 million. “If the cost of these machines can be driven down many more SMEs will have greater access to the technology. IHS is predicting a growth rate for additive manufacturing of between 30 – 40% a year for the foreseeable future. Over the next five years this will amount to a market value of around $35 billion, when you count the revenues generated from printer and material sales, service provider revenues, and the value of the actual parts being made on 3d printers,” said Chausovsky.

He went on to explain that there are some challenges and barriers that need to be overcome before the technology becomes mainstream. “Firstly, prohibitive material and printer costs need to be addressed.  Speed and size limitations also need to be overcome. Currently, most machines are limited to creating items the size of a basketball. However, we are now seeing examples of people working on extending these size limitations.”

“The machines may be relatively slow at present. However, it is important to consider that 3D printers are also following a trajectory similar to Moore’s Law, which sees printing speeds roughly doubling every 18 – 24 months. This means that within five to 10 years printing speeds may well be comparable with those of machining or injection moulding.”

Chausovsky finds it hard to see an area where, in the future, 3D printing will not have an impact.  For example, producing the gripper for a robot arm with traditional manufacturing approach can cost $10,000 and takes four weeks. Using FDM technology it would cost £600 and takes 24 hours to create.  “I believe we are at the beginning of a huge revolution in how we manufacture parts,” he said.  

In conclusion, Chausovsky offered a good demonstration of the revolutionary changes that additive manufacturing is already having on product development. He said: “The electric motor has, essentially, been made in the same way for the past 120 years. Today, we are on the cusp of a having a completely new way to build them, using additive manufacturing technology. One company, for example, has already created an electric motor rotor using a deposition technique that eliminates the need for laminations in the motor and enabling much smaller motors to be developed. It is important to pay attention to what is currently happening in this sector, and to make strategic business decisions that incorporate it.”

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