3D printing continues to make headlines. From ‘printing cars’ to printing jet engine parts, the field is growing. The good news is that a lot of money is being invested by government labs, large corporations and private investors. The bad news is that there will be a lot of “weeding out” as small start ups with big promises either fail to mature their technology and reach the market, or get bought out by larger companies with deeper pockets.
With all the news, it’s hard not to get excited. Printed cars? Some are pretty impressive. Reproductions of the old Cobra would likely be a hot ticket with instant market appeal. The Local Motors ‘dune buggy’? We’ll have to wait and see.
There are some fundamental questions that have to be asked and answered. Do we know enough about the basic materials that are being used to ‘extrude’ large format parts? How do these materials behave over time? Are the aging properties acceptable with shock and vibration, stress, chemical exposure, extreme heating and cooling?
Right now, there just isn’t enough information coming out from the programs that are generating all the hoopla. The suppliers who propose to sell you a printed car are not certifying their products for street use, it’s a little less clear where the liability rests.
On the opposite extreme with aircraft engine parts the certification of parts is a requirement in order to permit parts for use in airplanes. Very stringent testing must be done to meet mechanical load requirements. Long term, or accelerated life testing must be done in order to insure part stability.
In both high performance and less critical consumer applications of 3D printing, the key to success will be materials science. The possibilities are endless, and when we run out of know materials to experiment with, engineers will come up with new and unique materials that have the correct blend of properties to meet exotic requirements in performance and cost.
3D printing as a fundamental technology is based on simple 3 axis orthogonal actuation. There are only so many ways to organize this system, and only so many ways to put it together mechanically. The mechanical engineering needs to improve, and motors, drivers and controls technology needs to improve.
High throughput systems, higher or lower precision parts, and ultimately the amortized cost of manufacturing are all impacted. Fundamentally, it will all come down to how we solve the material science questions.