Many claimed, one day 3D printers would become as common as microwaves. The only one problem was: not many shared that dream!
Additive manufacturing, the industrial name for 3D printing is already used to make some niche products, such as medical implants, and to produce plastic prototypes for engineers and designers. But the decision to mass-produce a critical metal-alloy part to be used in thousands of jet engines is a significant milestone for the technology. And while 3D printing for consumers and small entrepreneurs has received a great deal of publicity, it is in manufacturing where the technology could have its most significant commercial impact.
Disruptive technology is defined as technology designed to create a new market by generating a unique set of standards that eventually overtake the existing market. 3D printing joins a list of disruptive technologies that includes smartphones, the Internet, cloud technology, and laparoscopic surgery. “3D printing empowers the user, not just the business owner and investor,” according to Apple Rubber, a leading designer and manufacturer of rubber compounds and sealing technology.
The adoption of additive manufacturing is increasing dramatically, but there is still an overall resistance to its place in mainstream companies. It diminishes the strength of large companies and uses staff-intensive supportive departments. It places feet under smaller businesses embracing rapid innovation.
The company, Desktop Metal, has raised nearly $100 million from leading venture capital firms and the venture units of such companies as General Electric, BMW, and Alphabet. The founders include four prominent MIT professors, including the head of the school’s department of materials science and Emanuel Sachs, who filed one of the original patents on 3D printing in 1989. Still, despite all the money and expertise, there’s no guarantee the company will succeed in its goal of reinventing how we make metal parts—and thus transforming much of manufacturing.
General Electric (GE) engineers are starting to explore how to use additive manufacturing with a wider range of metal alloys, including some materials specifically designed for 3D printing. GE Aviation, for one, is looking to use titanium, aluminum, and nickel-chromium alloys. A single part could be made of multiple alloys, letting designers tailor its material characteristics in a way that’s not possible with casting. A blade for an engine or turbine, for example, could be made with different materials so that one end is optimized for strength and the other for heat resistance.
Though it is possible to 3D-print metals, doing so is difficult and pricey. Advanced manufacturing companies such as GE are using very expensive machines with specialized high-power lasers to make a few high-value parts. But printing metals is limited to companies with millions to spend on the equipment, facilities to power the lasers, and highly trained technicians to run it all. And there is still no readily available option for those who want to print various iterations of a metal part during the process of product design and development.
Additive Manufacturing won’t replace such century-old production techniques as forging and metal casting, but 3D printing could create new possibilities in manufacturing and, just maybe, re-imagine the art of metallurgy.