Building on 3D printing

I wrote about the newly emerging technology of “additive manufacturing” this time last year (“Manufacturing’s Next Revolution”) and the envisioned impact it would have on global supply chains. To recap, additive manufacturing, also referred to as 3D printing, builds an article from the ground up by literally adding layers of material based on a pre-scanned, three-dimensional image.

As opposed to traditional machining, which subtracts from a solid block of material, a digital printer can fabricate articles of immense complexity in far less time, with less cost and without residual waste. Industry experts consider the ability of manufacturers to print a part on demand to be a game-changer throughout today’s global supply chain process.

Given the immense impact this new technology will bring to the world, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the subject a full 12 months later to see what additional breakthroughs, applications or other gains have been made.

For instance, one recent announcement was of a 3D printed drone created by engineers at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center. The remote-controlled glider has a wingspan of nearly 5 feet, yet weighs in at just more than four pounds, took less than 24 hours to fabricate, and is comprised of nine pieces that simply snap together — all because of 3-D printing. This proof-of-concept project could lead to larger powered aircraft with applications that could even include disposable, one-way flights made possible by the low cost of production, engineers said.

As an interesting twist, a rival team of U.K.-based engineers created a powered drone that carries its own 3D printer on board. The idea is that it could be sent into dangerous environments where it could fabricate tools or other articles on the spot, which could be used, for example, to seal off chemical spills, remove nuclear waste or repair a damaged building. 

As for retail sales, the University of Arkansas announced the sale of a “desktop” 3D printer for purchase within their on-campus computer store. Intrigued, I called the store to find out what they were being used for, how many they had sold and at what price. I was told sales of the “MakerBot Replicator 2,” which truly has a desktop footprint of approximately 15-by-19-by-13 inches, have all been solely to various departments on campus where they were extremely popular with the university’s engineering, design and art students. But at nearly $3,000 a unit, one wouldn’t expect these units to be flying off the shelves. Still, these were all firsts.

But where were the expected examples of manufacturers using 3D printing to eliminate their foreign supply chains? What happened to the envisioned flood of inexpensive home-appliance models from China?

Most of the articles I read weren’t about what 3-D printing is or of all the amazing things it is poised to accomplish, but tended to reiterate how much this new technology is still in its infancy and, as such, will experience a unique set of growing pains and will require a unique supporting infrastructure. 

According to the Gideon N. Levy, an expert in manufacturing technologies, additive manufacturing, although exciting, remains an extremely complex technology with four key elements for success:

  • Continued development of systems and processes. There currently are seven additive manufacturing processes based on specific physical principles.
  • Materials — the development of material types, such as polymers, metals, ceramics and biomaterials, and the need for industry standards.
  • Continued progress in current applications, including aviation, automotive, industry and medical devices.
  • The need for peripheral business support, such as preparation, design work, finishing and coatings.

3D printing also likely will have its own set of legal challenges. Take intellectual property theft, for example. Companies with extraordinarily complex goods could be at risk of having them scanned and replicated at knock-off print shops. Vendors of mainstream parts and components may need to offer their goods in the form of 3D replicating software versus traditional physical goods. Similar to music downloads, they will need to address how to control unauthorized sharing of their software.

To label me impatient would be an understatement, but there’d be good cause to do so. This technology is truly revolutionary, and its potential applications will only be as limited as one’s imagination. To quote Levy, “With additive manufacturing, the sky is the limit.”  

Jerry Peck is a licensed customs broker and global trade management expert with more than 30 years experience in regulatory compliance and GTM optimization solutions. Contact him at 469-235-5229, or at wmjerrypeck@gmail.com.

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