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February 10, 2017updated 16 Feb 2017 2:42pm

3D Printing Explained

In five questions or less, an industry expert defines and explains a technology, term or trend in CBR’s Tech Express – with this installment seeing Chris Connery, VP for Global Analysis at CONTEXT, tackle 3D printing.

By Ellie Burns

CBR: What is 3D printing?

CC: 3D Printing, also called “Additive Manufacturing”, is the process by which an object is “printed” on a layer-by-layer basis from an electronically created design.  There are affordable Desktop 3D Printers (sometimes lower than $1,000) which can be used in classrooms, homes, engineering centers and indeed almost anywhere and Industrial 3D Printers used on manufacturing floors.


CBR: How does 3D printing work?
3d printing

Chris Connery, VP for Global Analysis at CONTEXT.

CC: There are at least seven core technology types of 3D Printers mostly focused on making products out of plastics (polymers) and metals.  Most become introduced to the concepts of 3D Printers by way of Desktop 3D Printers.  These types of printers often use a process called Material Extrusion prints by way of a nozzle which extrudes plastic, layer-by-layer along a set pattern determined by a design from a computer.  When first being introduced to the concept, many think of the process like “squeezing toothpaste out of a tube.”


CBR: What kind of businesses would use 3D printing?

CC: 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing had historically been called Rapid Prototyping; this name gives a clue to one of the main uses still for the technology, the ability to create functional prototypes without the cost associated with mass producing a product.  An example might be, creating a prototype of a new electrical saw or a running shoe to allow designers and consumers alike to interact with and object during the development cycle.

3D Printing is also used for manufacturing, especially in areas where “mass customization” is needed.  A good example of this are the clear braces for teeth or hearing aids, which are produced in volume but are customized for each individual’s needs. These really play into the advantages of 3D Printing like “on demand production” when finished items and parts are only needed one-at-a-time.  At the very high end, 3D Printing is used today to make jet engine parts by way of sophisticated metal 3D Printing for the Aerospace industry.  Also at the very high end is the use of 3D Printing for orthopedics such as hip replacements.  An element of 3D Printing which is often seen in the popular press is also in the orthopedics area (but not internal to the body) whereby prosthetics can be created using anything from the most sophisticated 3D Printers all the way down to desktop 3D Printers which can also be used to make very affordable prosthetics.


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CBR: What are the main business benefits of 3D printing?

CC: The next step for 3D Printing is for it to make larger inroads into mainstream production.  This has already begun with 3D Printing in Metal (typically from $1M+ industrial machines) which can make more intricate parts than traditional manufacturing techniques, allowing for such things as lighter and more efficient jet engine parts.  GE believes in the technology and is not only using it for production but they have also recently acquired two of the leading global metal 3D Printing companies and will now be selling industrial 3D Printers as well.

For Plastics, new technologies are hopeful to allow for 3D Printing to begin to be used more for short to mid-run production (it will still be much cheaper to use traditional manufacturing technologies like injection molding for mass production for many years to come).  HP has recently introduced one of these new plastics-based industrial technologies and began shipping their MuliJet Fusion printers at the end of last year.


CBR: Will technologies like AI impact the 3D printing market?

CC: 3D Printing is already often times associated with robotics since, in essence, each 3D Printer is indeed a mini-robot, following the commands from the computer to make objects layer-by-layer.  To that end, 3D Printing goes hand-in-hand with Artificial Intelligence and Industry 4.0 or “the factory of the future.

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