3D printing makes manufacturing flexible and innovative
3D printing is used in a wide variety of settings and its prevalence in our everyday lives looks set to rise. From making prosthetics more personal with tailored solutions in the healthcare sector, to seeing a growing range of consumer novelty products on the high street – the spectrum of possibilities for 3D printing is only getting bigger. We discover how the technology is improving manufacturing to make it more flexible and innovative.
Manufacturing benefits of 3D printing
3D printing technology uses CAD software where digital files are designed to exact specifications before being sent to the 3D printer. This software allows designers to alter and adjust designs easily, making way for more innovation and creativity during product development stages. It differs from processes like injection moulding, for example, where expensive tools are designed for mass manufacture and without the possibility of being fine-tuned before manufacture.
With 3D printing, today’s ever-changing consumer demands can be amended quickly to fit with new trends, and customisation requirements. Also, more conventional processes mean some tools end up becoming obsolete and require expensive storage space. 3D printing uses the materials it prints, which also means less waste is produced too. Although 3D printing is often used for creating design prototypes, it can also be used for low volume runs and can work alongside other technologies too.
Choice of materials
Not only does the technology behind 3D printing provide choice and flexibility but the range of materials it can use extends its value further. This gives a greater depth of choice to creators of new products. FDM is the most common form of 3D printing and can use various filaments including polycarbonate, ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) PLA and TPU. FDM printers with advanced technology can utilise other materials that provide improved heat and chemical resistance and produce parts with more complex designs. Stereolithography (SLA), commonly used for making small parts, can also print a substantial range of materials.
3D printing in the healthcare industry
3D printing is becoming increasingly more innovative with many sectors researching and pushing the boundaries of its capabilities all the time. The healthcare sector has been at the forefront of some of this innovation with the recent needs of the global pandemic, which accelerated developments in some areas. In the early stages of COVID-19, there were urgent needs for ventilator parts and face shields on a mass scale. 3D printing rose to the challenge to help bolster supplies during this critical period.
3D printing and aerospace
Some of the most impressive examples of 3D printing can be found in aerospace and aviation. Additive manufacturing has been used in the industry for decades, producing lightweight and strong metal-based components and parts. One of the first industries to adopt the technology, it is used to create early-stage proof-of-concept models which help to demonstrate and assess new design features and test for aerodynamics. The precision of automotive parts is essential and lends itself to the high accuracy 3D printing can produce with metal components. Some of the 3D printing technologies used to produce these parts include SLA, and Electron Beam Melting (EBM).
Using 3D printing in the automotive industry
Automotive companies have also harnessed additive manufacturing’s capabilities through the swift production of full-size prototypes to assess design and functionality. It is also used to produce lightweight, yet robust, end-use, and obsolete parts for classic cars. Some tools for moulding, jigs and fixtures in the automotive sector are also created using the technology. The sector continues to drive innovation in 3D printing too. For example, Ford recently demonstrated its autonomous 3D printer design to increase efficiency and reduce cost. Another example includes BMW who have used 3D printing for decades and are now planning to establish the technology further.
Construction and 3D printing
Like other industries, 3D printing is used in construction to create durable tools, but it can also be used in the design of full-scale house builds. In fact, there is a small street in Texas entirely made up of 3D printed houses. A big element of the construction process is design related, which lends itself well to additive manufacturing as structures can be meticulously designed on CAD software before printing. 3D printing has the potential to build houses faster, with fewer labour costs and less waste, but it also has the potential to build with a much higher degree of complexity and innovation.
The common denominator with all these industries using 3D printing is that the possibilities for creation have been opened wider. Designers and product teams now have improved tools at their fingertips to revisit designs, try new concepts and experiment with different materials. This creative process can enlighten designers further, offering even more potential for innovation. All the while, 3D printing technology is developing too, and its capabilities are only getting stronger.