3D printing is making a big splash in the market. There have been a number of variants of the technology that are driving very complex changes into the manufacturing landscape, and it’s making the lines of demarcation a little blurry. That’s intentional since the key value of printed parts is reducing the cost threshold to producing a new product.
Many of the 3D print technologies are focused on driving parts cost down, primarily through the low amortization cost of inexpensive printers. The most popular low cost printers are able to print parts by heating various chemistries of plastic and “flowing” the material with enough precision to make a competent part. This approach has been very popular because many consumers and “makers” can afford to go through the learning curve and experiment until they get what they want.
Laser polymer printing (SLA) had been around for a long time, but was previously very expensive. The explosion of low cost “hot melt” printers has brought lower cost machines to this process as well and many of the machines available are comparably priced. SLA printers tend to be a little more precise and are able to produce finer features, but the polymers do not have comparable structural strength and have generally be used for testing shapes, not making products.
Printing of metals has been sort of the “holy grail” of printed parts. The technology is widely available from print bureaus and not a consumer option because the equipment is incredibly expensive. Typically these printers are in excess of $500,000. So you had better have a good reason to own one.
For customers in the aerospace and oil & gas industries, where high strength and complex shapes are crucial, conventional machining has been a ‘less than ideal’ choice. Parts with concealed features or non-Cartesian geometries become impossible to machine and limits possible solutions. With printed metal parts, any geometry can be achieved. Hollow honeycomb shapes inside of a structural member are not problem at all. In fact, there is a whole discipline of “lightweighting” parts to achieve super light weight and shorter print times.
Speed is a function of volume of material. So printing something like a chair is very time consuming using conventional printing methods. So the challenge is to redefine what the quantity constraints are in the specific application and look for technology that is suited. This is where the challenge will be for the near future as printing technology continues to mature.