What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, more formally called additive manufacturing, is a fundamental departure from traditional manufacturing of consumer and industrial goods. At its most basic level, manufacturing has always been a subtractive process: pieces of raw material were cut, carved, punched, or otherwise subtracted from a larger whole and then fastened together with glues, mechanical fasteners, or welding. 3D printing is, as its name suggests, both additive and three-dimensional. Much like a home printer tracks back and forth across the page, depositing ink in a precise pattern to make words and pictures, 3D printers typically consist of a print head depositing material onto a flat surface, which is then built up slowly to create a finished product.
There are several different types of 3D printers, but the two main varieties are the deposition printers which work as described above, and laser sintering printers, which heat a powdered form of the final material to cause it to fuse together and create the final printed piece. Laser sinterers are often quite a bit more expensive than deposition printers, as they require more sophisticated internal power and optics systems to focus the laser accurately enough to precisely form the part.
What are the Benefits of 3D Printing?
3D printers have tremendous advantages over traditional manufacturing; here are the three most important:
When designing a new product, there is often a significant ramp-up time creating the forms, tooling, and parts to even create the first few prototypes. With 3D printing, it takes exactly the same amount of time whether printing the first or the millionth piece. Changes to a component can be made as quickly as the engineer can design a new model in software, and the part can be printed to quickly see if the changes work as desired.
Wide Variety of Materials
3D printers were initially focused around plastics, but the state-of-the-art has now progressed into sintering metals of all sorts, including precious metals. Aerospace firms are now seeing the tremendous benefits of printing monolithic parts out of light and strong materials like titanium or aluminium.
Traditional manufacturing has long been hampered by the limitations of three-dimensional space and machining practices. Pieces are designed with space to rivet, weld, or otherwise fasten together two parts, and each individual component must have certain attributes--angles, curves, and diameters--so that the machining can be done within the skill level of employees and the technical specifications of the expensive equipment. 3D printing can produce intricate, fine, and dazzlingly complex shapes, all out of the same machine. No longer does the engineer need to design a part to fit a particular machine's bend capacity; instead, the part can be simplified and built to exactly fill its role in the final product.
Current Use in American Manufacturing
Many American manufacturers are already beginning to implement 3D printing into assembly lines. The first place it has seen a recent rise in use is in prototyping new parts. GE, for instance, has been creating scale model prototypes of its parts with 3D printers, and NASA has recently begun to test 3D printers in earnest, both on the ground and recently with the world's first zero-gravity printer on the International Space Station.
The most exciting developments, however, are in the new up and coming manufacturers. Rather than invest millions of dollars in old technologies, they are putting their capital into printers and are able to dramatically decrease their overall costs as a result. New space companies like Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and SpaceX have been heavily investing in 3D printing, with all three firms using 3D printers not just to prototype but to print flight-ready hardware for engines and tank components.
Looking to the Future
How will 3D printing affect American manufacturing? It's hard to say for certain, but the trend so far has been to bring manufacturing jobs back to American soil. While Chinese companies, for instance, tend to have a cost advantage in traditional manufacturing, the cost and skilled technical requirements for designing these complex parts make it advantageous for companies to relocate to America. While the number of jobs may initially contract due to more efficient production lines, ultimately the industry will flourish due to new avenues of complex manufacturing opened by 3D printing. Additive manufacturing is an exciting and thriving new technology that will certainly affect the future of manufacturing.