3d printing has been predicted for a number of years to revolutionize manufacturing and our lives. It’s proponents promised that we would soon be able to buy consumer goods, auto parts, etc., printed in a matter of hours from our local 3d printing hub. Manufacturing would become local, similar to how the internet revolutionized our access to knowledge. Anything could be manufactured and assembled anywhere, from a hut in Swaziland to the plains of Mongolia. While this reality is still a long way off, 3d printing has enabled substantial developments in the engineering world.
Many of the strengths of using additive manufacturing are seen during product development. Instead of using expensive machining or injection molding, a one-off prototype model can be quickly produced by widely available off-the-shelf 3d printing machines. It gives designers the opportunity to see how a part or assembly looks in reality, which can sometimes be difficult to appreciate from an electronic model. Dynamic movements and basic functionality can be verified, without loading the parts to their in-service working loads. Industrial designers and architects are increasingly making use of the technology in order to present and critically analyze their designs.
3d printing is becoming more widely used in the pre-manufacturing stages in producing metal and plastic parts. Molds for plastic injection molding or metal casting can be created quickly at a low cost. Ford motor company is using 3d printing to greatly speed up it’s casting manufacturing process. Aircraft manufacturers for example are developing lightweight magnesium casted seats using 3d printed molds (Manganese Airplane Seats).
The step to move from polymers to metals as a 3d printing medium is expensive. Good quality parts with high surface definition can only be achieved by using expensive high end machines. 3d printing is finding its niche however where complexity of form is combined with high performance specifications. Bike and yacht parts for sports professionals competing at the highest levels are good examples (3d Printing a Tour de France Winner). Some regular equipment manufacturers are also slowly making the step towards manufacturing high value components using the technology. Damen, a Dutch shipbuilding company, is currently developing a 3d printed propeller (Damen 3d Printed Propeller) .
Aerospace companies are keen to use 3d printing technology as it has the potential to deliver substantial weight savings. The design of components can be refined so that only material that is absolutely required, to deliver part characteristics such as strength or heat dissipation, is used. These refinements can lead to intricate components which are almost impossible to manufacture using conventional methods. 3d printing has not been the catalyst of a new industrial revolution as many predicted, but it is gradually expanding it’s usefulness in the engineering world.