The press continues to cover, dare I say, saturate the media with stories about the emergence of 3D printing. While the technology is extremely important, there is also a great deal of hype surrounding the subject. 3D printing is not the end of conventional manufacturing. 3D printing will not be in everyone’s homes, at least not for quite a while.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is also not new. The first Patent filing for stereolithography issued in 1986 by Chuck Hull who founded 3D Systems, Inc. and began selling machines based on the Patent in 1989. Stereolithograpy has been an available technology for 26 years. The process involves the use of 2 lasers that are triangulated to provide enough energy to cause liquie polymers to cross link and become solids with high precision. The cost of the early machines and the chemistry limited the technology to those few companies that could afford them for the purpose of speeding up new product development with quick turnaround prototypes.
The original SLS (stereolithography systems) produced precise parts that could be used to evaluate fit and function as solids parts, but did not provide structural strength for production parts. The original Patent claims anticipated the need for more durable parts that could be made using any “material capable of solidification” or transition from a powder or liquid to a solid.
Additive manufacturing offers the ability to make parts whose design is not limited by the rules of conventional manufacturing processes. It is feasible to produce parts whose complex shapes cannot be machined or molded. Weight reduction that depend on interior structural reinforcement techniques can be produced at will additively. Exotic alloys like titanium and Inconel, which are extremely hard and difficult to machine are being produced with additive processes.
All of which has captured the attention of engineers in Aerospace, Medical and Oil and Gas sectors of the economy. There is a gigantic range of improvement in all industries that AM (additive manufacturing) makes possible. So the financial markets have awakened to the fact that companies will benefit from these product improvements and make a lot of money. Big players like GE Jet Engine are moving quickly to leverage AM.
While this is just the beginning, bear in mind that 26 years since stereolithography was first made available. Then think about the billions of dollars of existing commerce that will be impacted and eventually transformed in the coming years.
It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take a lot of engineering. And those are good things for the economy and for people graduating from college with engineering degrees.