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3D printing makes its move into production

Robert L. Mitchell | Aug. 14, 2014
The use of 3D printing for finished goods is about to disrupt manufacturing and supply chains in a big way. Heres why, and heres how IT will be critical to that transition.

To successfully make the transition from prototypes to finished goods, 3D printing needs to go from building shapes with limited functionality to meeting more demanding manufacturing requirements.

But there's even more to it than that, says Gardner. Lockheed Martin Space Systems executive vice president Rick Ambrose set a company goal to manufacture an entire satellite using 3D printing technology, but getting there means maturing design, materials, operations and manufacturing procedures that are very different from established standards, Gardner explains.

As to the state of 3D printing technology and materials, Gardner says, "Nothing is holding us back. It's simply a matter of putting in the time and doing the engineering."

"The design principles, shapes and forms that work with subtractive manufacturing are completely different with additive 3D printing," says Airbus' Carson. To take full advantage of 3D printing in product manufacturing, Airbus has had to rethink design methods and principles, and develop and implement new standards for 3D printing as well as the skills sets to use them. "For manufacturing using 3D printing, there are not a lot of standards out there," says Jon Cobb, vice president at 3D printer vendor Stratasys.

The vertical markets leading the charge to manufacturing — including aerospace, medical and dental — all build products that fit into 3D printing's sweet spot: Low-volume, high-cost parts that are complex to build. The best fit, says Cobb, is for applications "where the volume is low or where change is frequent" — that is, in situations where subtractive manufacturing is least effective.

For now, build times remain a concern. Eventually, Cobb expects improvements in Stratasys' fused deposition modeling (FDM) thermoplastic 3D printing technology to increase in speed by two to five times.

But ultimately it may not be FDM or any current additive manufacturing technology that improves build times to the levels needed to support higher manufacturing volumes. "Three to ten years down the road there will be new technologies that change the way we do 3D printing," he says. While Cobb said Stratasys is actively working on new technologies, he would not elaborate or offer any specifics.

Parts on demand

"As prototype designs mature to full production, Lockheed Martin will partner with its customers to explore 3D-printed replacement parts on demand," Betza says. The use of just-in-time printing of spare parts could eventually disrupt the entire distribution supply chain, says Cobb.

Some replacement parts will be stored not in warehouses but as files on websites. Customers may then download parts files for a fee, and print them on their own 3D printers, at a big-box store or through a service bureau. "There's a whole new payment structure to be managed, and that's a big component for IT," Betza says. And as parts turn into electronic files, that intellectual property must be managed and protected as it's accessed by or transported to customers and business partners.


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