The Economist has an in-depth look at the rapidly emerging field of 3D printing, suggesting it will be complementary to large scale manufacturing (for the time being anyway) - 3D printing scales up.
The market for 3D printers and services is small, but growing fast. Last year it was worth $2.2 billion worldwide, up 29% from 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, a consultancy. As producers become more familiar with the technology, they are moving from prototypes to final products. Last year Wohlers reckons more than 25% of the 3D-printing market involved making production-ready items.
Some of those parts are taking shape in RedEye’s printers. In many cases they are low-volume items, such as components used to build specialist pharmaceutical or paper-making equipment. Other components, such as 3D-printed tools and jigs, will actually enhance mass-production: BMW’s assembly-line workers design and print custom tools to make it easier to hold and position parts. 3D-printed plastic moulds and dies are also being printed to help set up and trial new production lines. Some of these printed parts are even used as temporary stand-ins for broken steel tools, which can take weeks to replace.
Hard-to-find spare parts are also being 3D printed, in one case helping a large American airline to get some of its aircraft back into the air. The carrier was frequently having to ground its ageing McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jets because of leaking toilets. Production of these aircraft ceased long ago, and the airline was struggling to find spare parts. Its new plumbing is now being 3D printed in an aerospace-grade plastic (which does not ignite or produce noxious fumes if burned).
As 3D printers get better and printed materials improve, the quality and finish of prototypes is becoming harder to distinguish from things made in traditional factories, says Tim Thellin, RedEye’s manager. Despite the hype around desktop 3D printers aimed at hobbyists and consumers, it is the big, industrial-grade printers that are working the hardest as demand grows for printing large items, which are tricky to make with conventional methods such as plastic injection-moulding, says Mr Thellin. One example is body panels for specialist cars. These can have complex shapes, consolidating individual components that previously had to be assembled. ...
Meanwhile, 3D printing is becoming more readily available to people with no equipment of their own through service providers that print objects on demand from digitised plans, such as Shapeways, based in New York, Sculpteo, based in France, and Materialise, based in Belgium. It prints medical implants for surgeons, models of buildings for architects, lampshades for interior designers, custom-made knobs for cabinet-makers and lightweight parts for industrial robots.
If Mr Gou of Foxconn ever has a spot of bother with his own production lines, these firms might be able to help. Clément Moreau, Sculpteo’s boss, tells of a large Chinese manufacturer which was setting up a new production line, but found it was missing some small plastic parts which should have been ordered from an injection-moulding company. Faced with weeks of delay it looked at 3D printing the bits instead. Sculpteo had the first batch of 5,000 parts on their way to China within days. It is yet another example of how 3D printing is not competing with conventional manufacturing techniques, but is instead complementing and hybridising with them to make new things possible. When 3D printing can come to the rescue of mass manufacturing, its place in the factory of the future is assured.