Additive Manufacturing Deep Dive (Part 2): Every Part is Custom
In Part 1 of this blog series, we talked about how additive manufacturing (AM) has improved and even shaken up processes in traditional manufacturing industries, such as GE incorporating 3D printed parts into their jet engine manufacturing process. While the change may seem revolutionary, it isn’t actually surprising that a company already manufacturing products on a large scale would turn to new methods. What’s more surprising is industries we don’t normally associate with “manufacturing” that are discovering how AM can transform their processes also, sometimes on a very small scale.
Three basic factors are driving the adoption of manufacturing processes by unlikely industries: new printable materials, cost-effective production of complex structures, and the ability to customize every single part.
First of all, the new materials that can now be used in AM broaden the scope of possible applications substantially. No more are 3D parts rendered in only plastic or metal—everything from carbon fiber and glass to food products and live cells can now be printed. (If some of these materials aren’t available for private or commercial use yet, they are being actively developed.)
One of the earliest medical applications for AM was the production of standard designs for medical instrumentation, such as guides to help train surgeons, as well as implants like hip joints and prosthetics like hands. Early efforts of bio-printing, like implants, involved printing “scaffolds” with bio-compatible materials and then allowing live cells to grow over them. Those approaches may still be the most prevalent, but these days, printing directly with live cells is also becoming possible, which will allow the medical industry to directly fabricate tissue implants with compatible cells.
In addition, the next frontier in AM will be creating a single part from multiple materials, down to the micron level. On a more everyday level, the ability to print with multiple materials can yield a wide variety of customized combinations of parts, devices, tooling that meet the application requirements for strength, weight while minimizing costs.
Complex Structures at No Additional Cost
Second, the ability to create very complex, even organic, internal shapes makes AM possible at all and even well-suited for some purposes. The fact that added part-complexity doesn’t increase printing cost—and could even reduce it, due to less material used—also removes constraints in part design. As materials and processes become more widespread and mainstream, more and more industries are getting into the action. Shoe manufacturers can create custom-fit shoes for athletes. Glasses manufacturers can custom-print glasses (minus the lenses) for an individual’s specific anatomy. And of course, individual engineers, artists, or enthusiasts can create their own devices, household objects, or other work.
It’s clear that additive manufacturing can be hugely beneficial for just about everyone. For traditional manufacturers, it speeds up a manufacturing process, which gets products to market faster and improves the bottom line. AM is also good for manufacturers involved in more customized production. As one medical-device manufacturer says, AM helps them bring products to clinical use faster, develop better therapies, and personalize patient care. We’re already reaping benefits on all sides, and we’re still only seeing the tip of the iceberg of where AM can take us.