ASK THE EXPERT: Who needs a 3D printer?

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Additive manufacturing is on a rapid curve rarely seen for any manufacturing technology, and is expected to reach revenues of $50 billion by 2030. PHOTO: Burloak Technologies.

by Kip Hanson

The answer to this question is, in all likelihood, you. 

Since its invention nearly four decades ago, additive manufacturing, a.k.a. 3D printing, has become a force of change unlike any we’ve seen since the development of computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools. 

Examples include the well-known fuel nozzles for GE Aviation’s LEAP engine, which went from 20 machined components per assembly to just one 3D printed part, resulting in a 25% weight savings and five-fold durability improvement. If you or your kid has dental aligners, they’re almost certainly 3D printed. Satellites get launched more cheaply due to additively manufactured parts, surgical procedures run more smoothly, and tennis shoes are more comfortable, as are hearing aids and sunglasses. 

Don’t make any of these parts? To be honest, very few companies do, although countless others are using additive manufacturing (AM) to produce all manner of prototype and low-volume parts. Along the way, they’re simplifying supply chains, reducing waste, and making products lighter, less expensive, and more capable, and doing so more quickly than ever before. 

This helps explain why AM has been on a rapid growth curve rarely seen for any manufacturing technology, and is expected to reach revenues of $50 billion by 2030. 

Got your hands too busy cranking out parts the old-fashioned way, i.e., by machining, laser cutting, stamping, bending, EDMing, and welding them, to even think about adding an unknown process to the mix? I get it, but what if someone told you that 3D printing can help make your shop more efficient, no matter how you produce parts?

How so? Well, there’s the prototyping just mentioned. And while you might not be ready to pony up a big pile of cash for an “industrial-grade” 3D printer, there are plenty of desktop machines that deliver very acceptable part quality, plenty good enough for show-and-tell models, proof-of-concept parts and assemblies, and to make the estimating process a little bit easier—after all, what’s better than actually holding the part you’re about to quote 10,000 of? 

Such a machine might cost no more than a new height gage (I know, you need one of those, too) but can also be used to make 5S tools to tidy up the shop, inspection fixtures, vise jaws and press brake tooling, promotional materials to entice new customers along with customized holiday gifts to schmooze the old ones, or a temporary gear or pulley for that engine lathe that just went kaput. 

It’s a long list, but that replacement part alone could pay for a new printer, and I’ve spoken with several shop owners who’ve saved thousands by 3D printing a tooling component. 

If you’ve checked it out, you already know that many types of 3D printing equipment exist. Polymer-based technologies include stereolithography (SLA), fused deposition modeling (FDM), and selective laser sintering (SLS), while metal systems range from laser powder bed fusion (L-PBF) printers and binder jetting (also in polymer) to the more affordable (but less capable) bound deposition (BMD). 

With the exception of FDM and some SLA systems, most of these are too expensive for casual use. However, anyone willing to take a leap of faith and spend a bit more (maybe a lot more) will not only be able to accommodate the shop needs just mentioned, but quite possibly open a new revenue stream. Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at additive?

Kip Hanson

TECHNICAL EDITOR KIP HANSON has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies and has written over 1500 articles on a diverse range of metal manufacturing topics.

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