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New Developments May Change Expectations on 3D Printing

Posted By Jeff Moad, March 24, 2015 at 6:05 PM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

Some analysts like to talk about the hype cycle for emerging technologies. In the early phases of a new technology’s life cycle, expectations can quickly reach a peak of sometimes unjustified excitement which is quickly followed by a trough of disillusionment and a gradual realization of the technology’s true potential for productivity.

It’s a cute construct. But, it doesn’t seem to fit the 3D printing/additive manufacturing phenomenon. A lot of folks remain stuck at the peak-of-expectations stage, convinced that 3D printing will undermine and transform traditional forms of production and turn everyone into a designer and manufacturer. Many of these advocates, though, don’t have much direct experience with the traditional forms of manufacturing that they expect to be disrupted by this “new” technology that happens to date back to the early 1980s.

Then there are others—many seasoned manufacturing professionals—who skipped the peak of inflated expectations altogether and went right to the trough of disillusionment when it comes to additive manufacturing. For these folks, 3D printers are too slow and produce parts that are too low in quality to be practical for anything but prototyping and the production of low-volume, highly complex parts.

Recently, however, there have been a few developments in the 3D printing space that suggest the technology may finally be defining a place for itself on the plant floor—not just the prototyping lab. If, as it appears, these advances are beginning to address 3D printing’s quality and speed shortcomings, we may be getting closer to consensus regarding the potential for additive manufacturing, even among folks who today have widely-divergent opinions about the future of 3D printing.

Here are three examples:

  • A start-up company called Carbon3D has created an additive manufacturing technology that uses a photo-chemical process to continuously “grow” designed objects from a pool of resin. The company, staffed  by academics from Stanford and elsewhere, claims the process is between 25 and 100 times faster than typical additive processes such as selective laser sintering. And, because the process is continuous and doesn’t rely on the layering of material, it can produce very high-quality surface finishes, much like injection molding. The process can use a variety of materials, providing produced parts with desired properties such as elasticity and strength.

The Vancouver, BC-based company, which launched just last week, claims its technology will enable what it calls “3D manufacturing”, creating  the digital threat to be maintained from design through production.

The venture capital world seems to agree. In two rounds, Carbon3D has raised $41 million in private financing from backers such as Northgate Partners, Piedmont Capital Partners, Wakefield Group, Silver Lake Kraftwerk, and Sequoia Capital.

  • Another start-up launched earlier this year, Voxel8, has created a 3D printer that spits out functioning electronic components by combining typical plastic structures with a type of conductive ink to fabricate electronic circuits. Voxel8, made up of academics from Harvard, is teaming up with Autodesk. Voxel8’s 3D printers come integrated with Autodesk’s Project Wire design tool for designing embedded component placement and freeform wiring.

Early applications are expected to include custom circuits for medical products such as hearing aids.

  • Engineers at Monash University in Australia are joining large aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin to develop  very large-format 3D printers capable of fabricating jet engines in one pass. Monash recently unveiled its device, which reportedly is being used by Boeing, Airbus Group NV, Raytheon, and Safran SA, to prototype next-generation jet engines. The technology is said to enable prototyping of new jet engines up to four times faster than normal processes. It’s also expected to be used for fabrication of custom aircraft parts.

While 3D printing today—with a few notable exceptions--is still primarily used to accelerate the design and prototyping process, such rapid innovation in the space suggests that it will not be long before the technology will assume a more important, integral role in  many factories. Even skeptics lingering in the trough of disillusionment may soon be convinced.

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit

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