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Need something? Print it: 3D printing in engineering

Mon, 12/23/2013 - 10:46am
Kasey Panetta, Managing Editor

It sometimes seems as if it’s impossible to even go one day without reading or hearing about a story involving 3D printing. It’s the byproduct of a technology that has current applications in most industries and potential applications in almost all of them. Some of the more controversial application areas, like 3D printed firearms, receive a lot of coverage, along with the seemingly sci-fi applications like 3D printed organs or prosthetics. When you consider how 3D printing has seeped into every industry from aerospace (Boeing uses 300 printed aircraft parts) to museums (Smithsonian artifacts can now be printed at home via a 3D printer) it makes sense that it’s also becoming a heavily used technique in fields like engineering where prototyping and customization are key to the success of the business. In their book, Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, Melba Kurman, a technology writer, analyst and blogger and Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Cornell University explore the pros and cons of 3D printing and how it’s changing the world.

An inspiring technology
On a smaller scale, 3D printing is changing industries, but as a wide concept, it’s inspiring people to think about objects in a different way. “Design software and manufacturing machines play a vital role in nearly every product we buy, but for most of us, it’s a shadowy and unfamiliar universe,” says co-author Melba Kurman. “3D printing technologies make the design and manufacturing process not just accessible, but interesting. Kids and adults get excited about the growing internet marketplace of stunning and whimsical consumer-to-consumer 3D printed toys, housewares, jewelry and iPhone cases. When people see an amazing 3D printed object that captures their imaginations, they want to know how it’s possible to create something so unusual or advanced.”

It’s allowing people to peer behind the curtain of design and see how the process works, but it’s also simplifying things for design engineers. For them, it’s a limitless world full of great potentials like oddly shaped batteries or micro scale-circuits. 

Leveling the playing field
For the design engineer, 3D prototyping is not as foreign a concept as it might be to other industries due to rapid prototyping. “Design engineers, particularly in the electronics, automotive and aerospace industries caught the wave early since they use additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping, to create visual aids and functional parts,” says Kurman.  “Looking into the long-term future, design engineers will gain new design spaces as they push 3D printing to the limit and begin to invent new product form factors and novel blends of materials.”

Much of the potential for 3D printing — particularly for smaller companies — is in its ability to level the business playing field, particularly when it comes to small scale artisanal products, according to the Fabricated. It’s a pretty simple business strategy. It’s more or less impossible for smaller companies to compete with the onslaught of quantity of bigger companies who make their money from selling a lot of one product. However, with the availability of 3D printers, smaller companies are able to offer something that larger companies are generally unable or uninterested in offering: customizability. This would include items that are, “constantly changing or custom-made high margin,” according to the book. These products also include things for the medical community that are designed to fit one person with very specific measurements.

For the business, it’s a matter of having access to programs and machinery that they were unable to afford before 3D printing. For the customer, it’s needing a small number of a product or even one incredibly custom product and not wanting to pay to have 1000 made by a large company. It’s a match made in design engineering heaven.

Stop before that mistake costs money
3D printing has really changed the process of design engineering because it allows for relatively instant prototypes without the time-consuming process of using foam or clay.  This is particularly useful in the automotive field, since showing models of parts and full car designs can be integral to the manufacturing process. These printed parts can help give designers and customers a feel for the design and ergonomics of the car, plus it can help avoid problems down the road because it allows for things to be printed exactly to scale with the correct dimensions. That means that designers can catch mistakes or flaws—the book’s example includes a car with a hole to change the oil that’s too small for a hand to fit through — that might go unnoticed in a rough clay prototype. It’s also a good way to make sure a design is even possible when it comes to production. Sometimes, a design that works well on paper can be impossible given the realistic capabilities of manufacturing, according to Fabricated. For example, parts may not interlock correctly or be limited by the inability of a factory machine to make something that is hollow.  

Future challenges
Even though some of the United States is onboard with 3D printing — 40 percent of 3D printers owned worldwide reside in the United States, according to the Wohler’s Report — there are still quite a few challenges to be overcome before the technology is fully integrated into the society. That means it requires cheaper printers and more uses for the everyday person. 3D printing has to get to a point where the average person understands and recognizes the benefits. Once that happens, the possibilities are, quite literally, nearly endless.

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