Industry Watch

3D Printing and Beyond

The latest in additive manufacturing and what’s next

The 3D printing space is abuzz with possibility right now. I spoke with some local 3D printing experts to learn more about the current state of the art — and what might be around the corner.

More competition, cheaper equipment
This decade has proven that market forces work as intended for additive manufacturers. 

Between 2009 and 2014, key 3D printing patents held by Eden Prairie-based Stratasys and others expired. This “patent cliff” paved the way for an explosion of competition. Upstarts like Formlabs and MakerBot (acquired in short order by Stratasys) pioneered improved or scaled-down versions of expensive, cumbersome technologies originally developed in the 1980s and 1990s. Equipment costs fell rapidly, though industrial-grade machines still carry five-figure price tags today.

This shakeup opened the door for a new crop of independent 3D printing bureaus, such as Inver Grove Heights-based Wellstronics 3D and Eden Prairie-based 3D Printing Ally, that specialize in small-scale, relatively low-cost fabrication solutions.

Each bureau seems to have its own niche. 

3D Printing Ally does lots of work with companies, including some Minnesota-based medtechs, that routinely exceed their internal 3D printing capacities. They farm out short-term design and fabrication work to 3D Printing Ally. For founder Tyler Pope, lower barriers to entry are good news. 

“The more people exposed to 3D printing at the office or in the workshop, the likelier they are to embrace the technology and come to us for solutions,” he says. 

Medtech companies aren’t the only ones enticed by cost-effective 3D printing. One of Pope’s clients, a museum in the Middle East, retained 3D Printing Ally to print intricate animal models for its collection.

New processes, exotic materials
The patent cliff forced Stratasys and other legacy companies to innovate, fast. Over the past decade or so, they’ve developed faster fabrication systems, pioneered new additive manufacturing techniques and improved on existing technologies. 

  • Stratasys Infinite-Build: Still in showcase mode, Infinite-Build prints on a vertical plane, allowing for “practically unlimited part size in the build direction”— crucial for oversize aircraft and ground vehicle parts.  Boeing and Ford are currently testing the limits of Infinite-Build’s cost-effective applications.
  • Stratasys Continuous Build: A “print wall” — an assembly line-like array of 3D printer cells. The heavily automated apparatus spits out parts with limited human intervention; it’s our first glimpse at a radical, depopulated manufacturing future.
  • HP Multi Jet Fusion: A proprietary 3D printing process that promises “up to 10 times faster at half the cost.” Proto Labs can produce machined parts for $50 to $60 apiece, undercutting “traditional” 3D printing techniques.
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS): Laser beams melt and bind materials, opening up a huge range of possibilities for lightweight, super-strong construction without conventional joints or bindings. Aerospace and medical device applications are promising.
  • 3D-printed mold cavities: These dramatically lower the cost of plastics-based additive manufacturing jobs. The old aluminum molds injected with molten plastic could take a couple of months from design to completion and cost $10,000 to $20,000, says Wellstronics3D principal John Wells — with most time and cost attributable to the mold itself. Parts produced using 3D-printed cavities take a couple days and cost 10 times less. 
  • 3D scanning technology: “This is the next big thing in design and engineering for additive manufacturing,” says Wells. Creating a usable 3D print file takes skill — “software knowledge and mechanical understanding,” per Wells. Companies like Artec have already taken 3D scanners to market. In five to ten years, Wells expects to see regular cameras and lightweight apps that will be able render the shape of a 3D object with a few clicks of a button. So far, only professionals use 3D scans. 

The additive edge: AR, VR and more
Some of the most exciting developments are happening on the modeling side of the equation, at the intersection of 3D scanning and augmented or virtual reality.

VR modeling already has big backers: Facebook’s $2 billion investment in Oculus produced the Oculus Medium VR modeling system, for instance. 

Aircraft manufacturers and OEMs use tools like Medium “to save weight, time, space and money,” says Pope. Because the technologies allow designers to model many different possibilities in short timeframes, it’s much easier to design iteratively with AR or VR. “The computer spits out 25 design options and you choose the best one,” says Pope — rather than print a single design and hope it works, only to find out  it doesn’t and you need to start over.

We spooned through 3D printing’s alphabet soup so you don’t have to.

FDM: Fused deposition modeling. Typically involves layering plastic or polymers along three axes.
SLA: Stereolithography. Uses photopolymerization, wherein a UV laser draws intricate patterns on a resin bed to create layers of solid, chemically bonded polymers. 
SLS: Selective laser sintering. Uses a laser to sinter (bind) powdered glass, ceramic, plastic or more exotic materials into the desired shape.
DMLS: SLS for engineering-grade metals. DMLS-made parts are already showing up in aircraft and medical equipment; look for more to come.
Polyjet: Basically inkjet printing in three dimensions. Deposits countless super-thin layers of photopolymer material to build 3D shapes.

Proto Labs doesn’t use AR or VR internally, but it does use an AR-like process to peel back its modeling curtain. When a prospect asks for a quote for custom parts, Proto Labs “virtually manufactures” the part in a simulated 3D environment. Its proprietary web-based software analyzes a 3D CAD model, writes its build code, and then virtually manufactures it. The rotatable representation of the finished part is incredibly intricate, with multiple angle views, cut-outs and textual call-outs for information that can’t be represented visually. 

On the fabrication side, the holy grail for the transportation industry is the use of carbon-based printing to displace aluminum as the lightweight material of choice. Markforged launched the first carbon fiber composite printer in 2014, combining wiry carbon fibers with nylon and other materials to produce ultra-lightweight threads with the tensile strength of metal. 

For now, Pope is a carbon skeptic: “Carbon printing is exciting, but proponents aren’t telling the whole story on what happens when the print is done.” In other words, carbon printing has promise — not proof of concept.

Eventually, perhaps five or ten years down the road, Pope does see a future in self-supporting manufacturing cells — successors to Stratasys InfiniteBuild and Continuous Build — pump out literal carbon copies around the clock with little to no human oversight. 
At scale, high-fidelity, low-touch assembly-line carbon printing could be cost-competitive with traditional manufacturing for a much wider range of products — for instance, automotive replacement parts. 

Why stop there? In the future, our descendants could send autonomous 3D printing sentries to distant worlds, where they’d build livable habitats with materials on hand. NASA’s ongoing $2.5 million 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge means smart people are taking this seriously. 

Remember us when your grandkids move to a 3D-printed Martian dome.