Big Business Gets Additive Manufacturing

The latest firsts in 3D printing are emerging out of R&D labs and being made by big businesses.

Jamie Gooch on additive manufacturing

Over the years, we’ve covered a number of firsts in 3D printing. The first commercial use of the term 3D printer (1996), the first working 3D printed kidney (2000), the first self-replicating 3D printer kit (2004), the first 3D printed prototype car body (2010), the first general consumer-focused 3D printer (2012) and the first 3D printer in space (2014), to name a few. But now the firsts are breaking out of R&D labs and being made by big businesses.

Boeing, with the help of Norsk Titanium, just received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to use 3D printed parts in its 787 Dreamliner. It’s the first time a plane will use 3D-printed metals as structural components. Adidas and Carbon worked together using Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis technology to create the Futurecraft 4D midsole. Adidas released more than 300 of the new 3D printed shoes last month and plans to produce more than 5,000 this year and 100,000+ by the end of 2018. Caterpillar recently opened a 3D Printing & Innovation Accelerator and announced a partnership with FIT AG, known for creating the Netfabb 3D printing software company that it sold to Autodesk. Ford is the first automaker to pilot the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer, which is capable of very large builds. GE Additive, which calls itself the world’s leading digital industrial company, has invested about $1.5 billion in manufacturing and additive technologies at GE’s Global Research Center. It wants to grow its new additive business to $1 billion by 2020 and sell 10,000 additive machines over the next 10 years. Google Ventures and BMW iVentures are among the investors in Desktop Metal, a start-up developing the first desktop 3D printers that can create metal parts.

The Business Case for Industrial 3D Printing

The list goes on and on. What they all have in common is combining the manufacturing and supply chain experience of big businesses with the technology and expertise of additive manufacturing providers. Whether working directly with, investing in, or simply purchasing 3D printing technology vendors outright, it’s clear that big business is ready to fully embrace 3D printing.

The momentum of “digitalization”—connecting all phases of a product lifecycle throughout and beyond the enterprise via a digital thread—can only further the adoption of industrial 3D printing/additive manufacturing. It’s a huge undertaking for any enterprise, and direct digital manufacturing is only part of it. In the past, some wrote off 3D printing as a solution in search of a problem. Now, some of the challenges of digitalization—such as mass customization, connected automation and realizing the benefits of topology optimization—are big problems 3D printing can help solve.

The benefits to industrial 3D printing, given the right circumstances, are well documented. The time and cost savings, coupled with less tangible notions of “free” design complexity and fewer manufacturing constraints, make 3D printing a no-brainer for sectors that specialize in short-run production of custom parts. But beyond expensive aerospace and racecar parts, or custom medical and dental applications lies mass market manufacturing. The extent to which 3D printing can penetrate those markets depends largely on how much faster it can get, how much larger build volumes become and how many engineers know how to design for a future that melds additive and subtractive technologies.

Designing for Additive Manufacturing

As we’ve noted in the past, design engineers need new tools and thought processes to design and simulate for additive manufacturing. Everything from material options to model prep to post-processing follows traditional manufacturing process rules, requirements and tribal knowledge developed over generations. Rapid prototyping & manufacturing service providers can help fill the knowledge gap and design software vendors are making great strides in providing better tools for 3D printing. Still, for 3D printing to reach the levels being forecast by industry analysts, the comfort level of design engineers, old and young, is just as important as an acceptance of its benefits by CEOs or its ability to meet technical challenges.

Share This Article

Subscribe to our FREE magazine, FREE email newsletters or both!

Join over 90,000 engineering professionals who get fresh engineering news as soon as it is published.

About the Author

Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

      Follow DE