3D Printing is being called the next industrial revolution. But for those of us who work in manufacturing it has been hard to see how the technology could compete with the speed and quality produced by traditional machine tools. 3D Printing’s unique properties makes it perfect for mass customization as in the medical device industry or creating complex geometries of high value parts such as those engineered for aircraft. But for many copies of one design, 3D Printing has not been able to compete on the factory floor. Until now.
3D Systems has just announced that their fab-grade 3D printers effectively matched and exceeded the productivity of traditional injection molding in the direct manufacture of functional parts. The company was able to demonstrate a stereolithography 3D Printer making 2400 small lamp shades. It took only about 30 seconds to 3D Print each part, on a par with injection molding. I also had a chance to see some plastic parts at the 3D Systems factory in February and the surface quality rivaled the best manufacturing processes I’ve used. 3D Systems high investment in R&D of new materials and machines is paying off in the right areas.
The biggest advantage over injection molding is that a 3D Printed design does not need an expensive mold to be manufactured first. All 3D Printing designs are created in a Computer Aided Design [CAD] program, many of which are now available for free via the Internet. If a design needs to be changed, a part can be quickly and easily modified in CAD directly on a computer eliminating expense and wait-times for new molds.
Of course, 3D Printers for production are not the same as the inexpensive, desktop machines that are getting so much press. But the biggest market by far for 3D Printers is industrial, not consumer and as prices come down and speed goes up, 3D Printers really are leading to a new industrial revolution. Here’s a video about high volume 3D Printing from 3D Systems.