Hailed by some observers as “an industrial revolution for the digital age”, rapid manufacturing has been changing the face of the manufacturing industry for some time now. Many believe that 3D printing technology is democratising design and manufacturing, making it more accessible and less dependant on economies of scale.  Traditional manufacturing methods often come with prohibitive tooling costs meaning that smaller companies and individuals are often priced out of the market when it comes to product development. 3D printing has been hailed as a game changer though and has enabled businesses to make manufacturing advances that were previously unthinkable.

Here at Freshome we are intrigued by the process of 3D printing and we wanted to find out more about this disruptive technology that is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. Luckily an expert in the field was on hand to answer some of our questions. Dr Phil Reeves is the Managing Director and principle Consultant at Econolyst Ltd, a UK-based additive manufacturing (AM) & 3D printing consultancy & research firm working with a broad range of clients across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Far East & Africa. Dr Reeves advises additive manufacturing systems vendors on future business & technology strategy, and technology users on the business benefits of AM adoption.

What exactly is 3D printing?

3D printing is a term used to describe a range of emerging technologies that produce tangible product from 3-dimensional computer data. The technology is often referred to in industry as “Additive Manufacturing”, as the approach works by bonding together 2-dimensional layers of material, layer-by-layer, until the 3D part is complete.

3D printing has been around for over 20 years already, what progress has been made in that time?

Early 3D Printing machines were used solely for making Rapid Prototyping (RP) models used during product development. These early RP models had very limited strength and would often deform or degrade within weeks or even days of manufacture. But given that they were only being used to assess a product’s shape or form, that was acceptable at the time.

As the technology has matured, so the range of materials available to us has increased, and with this has come improvements in mechanical properties and longevity. We can now produce parts in metals such as titanium or gold, polymers such as ABS, Nylon and polycarbonate or ceramics such as aluminum or zirconium.

In parallel, the technologies have become larger and faster, making them more productive and more economic in terms of volume production. It is the coupling on increased productivity with increased material suitability that is driving the technology into main stream production applications in areas such as orthopaedic implants, dental caps and crowns, hearing aids, mobile phone cases, prosthetic limb covers and home interior products.

How is 3D printing technology being used in the interiors industry? 

Interestingly, home interiors were one of the first applications where 3D Printing was really used to manufacture products, rather than simply prototypes. Around the turn of the millennium some young creative designers who had been exposed to RP technologies at University, started establishing businesses selling 3D printed interior products, from lamp fittings and fruit bowls, to furniture and art.

Probably the most influential was Janne Kyttanen at Freedom of Creation. Janne understood the power of 3D printing in terms of a business enabler. He was able to establish a company selling geometrically complex products that were previously unthinkable, without the need for any up-front capital investment in tooling. Through the internet he was able to sell products almost before they were even manufactured, getting small batches produced on demand by third party companies who had invested in the 3D printing technology to service the RP industry.

Other companies such as Materialise MGX soon started aggregating 3D printed interior products from multiple designers and marketing them through more traditional interior retailers. Other 3D printing product designers such as Lionel Dean at Future Factories partnered with existing interiors manufacturers such as Kundalini lighting in Italy, using their channels to bring 3D printed products to market.

And how is it being used by architects?

At the moment, 3D printing is still very much a rapid prototyping tool for architects. As more and more architects have transitioned from 2D Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to 3D CAD software, they have been able to exploit the link between 3D CAD and 3D printing. Architects are now regularly producing very detailed models of buildings, interiors, 3D site plans and even whole master plans for redevelopments, made possible by linking 3D printing with topological scanning and satellite data. It is even possible to extract data on a specific geographic area from Google Earth and 3D print this as an aid to master planning.

We are now seeing some companies developing 3D technology specifically for the construction industry, such as D-Shape. D-shape has developed a large scale 3D printing system that uses reclaimed marble powder or sand, which is consolidated by jetting a binder into the material. D-Shape is now producing relatively large (circa 5M high) architectural products such as gazebos, kiosks, park benches & furniture. Other research groups are looking at scaling 3D printing up further for the production of whole buildings, but I think this is maybe a decade or two away from being a reality, if at all.

To what extent are market trends and consumer expectations driving 3D printing?

There is certainly a lot of interest and hype around 3DP at the moment. On one hand that is a good thing. However, on the other hand, we do have to be careful not to oversell the capabilities of the technology. The technology has been very good at responding to some market trends, such as the market for more stylistic and individual mobile phone covers. The technology has also responded to the growth in on-line computer gaming and social networking, enabling online games characters and avatars to be realised into tangible, yet personalised products.

But, there are still limitations in terms of process economic and material capabilities. There is an expectation that one day 3D printing will be able to print almost anything, even in the home, from pots and pans, to broken parts of washing machines, showers or the TV remote. The reality is, we are years away from such systems. But we do already have relatively basic systems aimed at the consumer market that are suited to the manufacture of basic toys, games and curios.

What effect is 3D printing having on design and manufacturing processes?

One of the most significant aspect of 3D printing is the ability to manufacture complex geometries with little if no cost penalty. In fact, 3D printing is often used to make products that are impossible to produce using traditional processes such as plastic injection moulding. Designers are exploiting this geometric flexibility by enabling greater and greater levels of product differentiation. In the end, no 3DP product ever needs to be the same.

This single-unit batch production is also a compelling driver to the manufacturing community. In the past manufacturing economics was always based on producing sufficient components to cover the costs of fixed assets, such as the mould tools. But once you take away the need for the mould tools, the economic model changes dramatically.

The process of 3D printing presents some real benefits as far as the supply chain is concerned. Can you explain these benefits?

3D printing is not just a disruptive technology being used to replace moulding, casting or machining, it is an enabling technology that allows companies to think differently about their supply chains, and more importantly the value chain and interaction with the customers within their business. There are really six main benefits across this value chain that result from the implementation of 3D printing.

  • Digital & tool-less manufacture – enabling increased levels of product variance and smaller economic batch production to support specific geographic, demographic or social trends
  • Exploiting design freedoms – enabling the production of products with increasing levels of geometric complexity, with little if no cost penalty
  • Enabling product personalisation – coupling low volume production in batch sizes of one with complex geometry to realise individualised products
  • Offering new experiences in retail – engaging the consumer in the product design experience through online or in-store access to intuitive software tools or 3D scanning
  • Addressing emerging markets – coupling product personalisation with retail accessibility for an aging and changing population
  • Greening the supply chain – reducing stock holding, mitigating packaging waste, reducing logistics & reduced manufacturing CO2

In effect, 3D printing can totally reorient the supply chain, as it puts the consumer at both the back end and front end of the chain. Consumers can engage in the initial product design, or they can order on-demand, with products being made following the exchange of payment. 3D printing can enable both an agile responsive supply chain, but also one that is lean – we call it legile manufacturing.

What are the material limitations of 3D printing and what progress is being made to overcome these limitations?

As we have said, we still have material limitations. Some are physical, some are economic, some are aesthetic and some are environmental. 3D printing processes still struggle to achieve the mechanical properties of moulded plastics or metal parts machined from solid. But there is a lot of work going on in labs and universities around the world to expand the range of materials and improve on what we already have.

We are also seeing more companies entering the materials supply chain, which is driving down the cost of raw materials, which of course influences the economics of the final parts produced. We are also seeing better colour definition and transparency, improving the aesthetics of parts, along with more sustainable materials such as green polymers like Nylon 11 and PLA derived from plants rather than oil. We still have a long way to go, but we are moving fast and moving in the right direction.

What are the main stumbling blocks to 3D printing becoming a mainstream technology?

As we have said materials are an issue, but this can be mitigated to some extend through product design. Economics is also an issue, as production 3D printing machines and materials are relatively expensive and relatively slow, making the parts they produce appear more costly than those manufactured by mass production techniques. However, as material prices drop and productivity increases, so the economics of 3D printing becomes more acceptable.

The other main limitation is knowledge. Many companies simply don’t understand how to use 3D printing or where to position it within their value chain. Their current manufacturing supply chain feels vulnerable, their product designers don’t fully understand how to exploit the geometric benefits and their marketing functions struggle to understand how to integrate 3D printing into the customer value chain. I guess that’s where we come in as a consultancy helping companies to understand these issues, assess the technologies, develop the business case and implement into the value stream.

With the advent of low cost portable desktop 3D printing machines there has been talk that we will soon have these in our homes. How likely is this scenario?

I have two 3D printing machines in my house and my kids love them. But then again, an undertaker probably has the odd coffin of two in the garage. Seriously, interest for home 3D printing has been phenomenal in the last couple of years, as has the growth in companies making machines to service the market. Last time we counted we found over 40 companies around the world making low-end, home, consumer printers. Most are based on the same open source design of extruding molten polymer through a nozzle, but some are using other approaches. Last year around 15,000 home printers were sold. We expect that number to be nearer to 60,000 this year (maybe more).  So not every home – just yet.

At the moment, most home machines are being used by people interested in the technology or interested in product design. We are seeing more and more people buying then to support their hobbies, whether it’s making remote controlled aircraft parts or even making customised fishing lures.  They are great from an education perspective – take a 3D printer, some cochineal food colouring, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and you have the best ‘class winning’ volcano homework project ever.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to explore 3D printing as a potential business investment?

You need to know your market, know your customers and know your skills. There are many opportunities across the supply chain from designing 3D printed products, retailing them online or on the high street, developing software interfaces to allow others to engage in design process, formulating new materials, or for those with deeper pockets, setting up production capacity. For companies, the key is to understand the customer experience and the value of the technology. For some companies 3D printing is a silent enabler – making the companies’ lives easier. For others, 3D printing is the ‘hook’, the reason the product exists, the differentiator. Once companies understand how 3D printing can add value, then they need to understand how to use it and when to use it, but that’s another story.

Freshome would like to thank Dr Phil Reeves for his expert insights into the world of 3D printing. All images featured in this article courtesy of Freedom of Creation