In Focus: 3D Printing Continues to Rock Manufacturing
Manufacturing — not just printing — fully functioning parts and biomanufacturing are on the horizon for 3D.
Companies surveyed by market research firm Essentium report that industrial 3D printing continues to provide substantial manufacturing benefits, including reduced lead time, mass customization, the ability to make complex parts that cannot be made with traditional manufacturing methods, and high part performance.
The survey results are being borne out in myriad use cases. For example, the new Boeing 777X contains over 600 3D printed parts. Surgeons are using 3D printed patient-specific models of tumors to treat cancer. Brazilian scientists have 3D bioprinted functional mini livers.
Making Customized, Complex Parts
As I explain in my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, one of the chief benefits of 3D printing is distributed manufacturing. Instead of fostering large, centralized factories making millions of the same part, 3D printing enables small runs of highly customized or complex parts in hundreds of thousands of small factories, such as local 3D printing fabricators, dentists making crowns in the dental office, or end-users making their own replacement parts as needed.
3D printers are best for making customized parts, not mass-produced ones. For example, HP, which has its own line of 3D printers, uses them to make tooling, fixtures, and end-use components for in-house use for its 2D printer, 3D printer, and computer segments, with part consolidation, weight reduction, and cost-savings benefits.
A great strength of 3D printing is making one-off parts on demand. When an Air New Zealand flight reported a broken cabin part shortly after takeoff from Auckland, a replacement part was 3D printed before the plane landed in Los Angeles. The U.S. Marine Corps created the X-Fab mobile 3D printing factory for making parts where and when they are needed, such as 3D printing and modifying drones in advanced areas. The U.S. Army is integrating 3D printing into its supply chain, printing items on demand, such as its recent 3D/bioprinting of a bandage with antibiotics on a ruggedized 3D manufacturing system in a deployed area, in a joint project with the Uniformed Services University 4D Bio3 Program, The Geneva Foundation, and nScrypt.
3D printers are best for making customized parts, not mass-produced ones. Align Technology, SmileDirectClub, and Smilelove all use 3D printers to make molds for millions of clear teeth aligners, each one of which is different.
Pharmaceuticals & Biomanufacturing
3D printing also holds great promise for making pharmaceuticals that meet patient needs. Aprecia is doing just that, using its Cincinnati factory to make the first FDA-approved 3D printed pharmaceutical, which is an instantly dissolving epilepsy drug. Serbian researchers are using 3D printing to optimize drug release.
To date, 3D printing has meant mostly making parts. I see two major frontiers, one of which will be the 3D manufacturing (not just 3D printing) of fully functioning products, not just parts. For example, the U.S. Army and Orlando, Florida-based nScrypt demonstrated automatic 3D manufacturing of fully functioning electronic devices in one machine.
The other major frontier is 3D biomanufacturing. Researchers at MIT, Harvard, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have developed biohybrid materials that combine living and nonliving components to create multifunctional biological systems. Such materials are one of several recent steps toward merging 3D printing and bioprinting to make biomechanical products and parts with biomimicry printers for healthcare and beyond, such as biomechanical human hearts or living, self-healing armor.
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