Three-dimensional (3D) printers make finished products with one process. Driven by a digital blueprint, they build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal or other materials.

Most products result from many manufacturing steps performed by different machines, each with its own operator. Each machine and operator executes a certain job — such as cutting, drilling or milling — and passes the part to another machine and operator that perform another job. This process continues along an assembly line until the part is complete. Eventually, all the parts are assembled into a final product, either by machine or by hand. 3D printing replaces all these steps with fundamentally different machines and materials that simplify manufacturing.

Advantages

Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production and its economies of scale and low labor costs, which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors. 3D printing eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product fully assembled, and one operator can manage an entire roomful of 3D printers.

As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, democratizing manufacturing. Also, it is no more expensive per part to 3D print one part versus a million parts, or to customize every part instead of making them the same. A uniform price to produce highly complex parts also eliminates the need for economies of scale and low labor costs.

This means there is no advantage and maybe no need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, so thousands of 3D printing fabricators can start up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.

Massive factories are not good at mass customization. They are good at shipping a million of the same part to a few locations but not shipping a million customized parts to a million different locations.

Traditional versus new methods

Before 3D printing, products were designed so that they could be produced using traditional manufacturing methods, which is called “design for manufacturing.” 3D printing eliminates this limitation and enables manufacturing for design.

This allows designers to create products that never existed before, and to give existing products a radically different look and feel. However, 3D printers can be used not only by traditional manufacturers, but also by their customers.

Consider a company that needs turbine blades used in power generation. The blades need to be replaced from time to time at high expense. By using 3D printing to repair the blades, the customer no longer needs to buy new ones. This is good for the customer but bad for the blade manufacturer, and it blurs the lines between manufacturer and customer because the customer becomes a manufacturer.

Suppose a customer or the military starts 3D printing its own spare parts rather than buying them from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

Some OEMs will adapt, selling 3D printable digital blueprints rather than making parts or becoming digital design companies that close their factories.

Other OEMs will not adapt, as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital imaging revolution. Some may be unable to adapt. Many horse-related businesses were unable to survive after the automobile’s invention.

The disruption checklist

Certain elements need to fall in place for a 3D printing revolution to start. On the industrial side, two things must trigger the disruption of any existing product-based market:

  • The ability to build large things, creating the need for 3D printers with large build platforms
  • The ability to make either single items quickly or many items simultaneously — creating the need for speed or scale of production

On both the home and industrial sides, some additional requirements are necessary for market disruption:

  • Advanced materials (including materials that may not exist) to enable the efficient printing of complex structures
  • The ability to print complex, integrated structures, such as smartphones and blenders
  • The ability to print very small things, such as the integrated circuitry of computer chips
  • Hybrid machines that can perform the processes that today’s 3D printers cannot
  • Innovators, especially the innovators of the future — namely, young people who grow up with 3D printing

Technology applications

Many people believe that 3D printers make only tchotchkes from spools of plastic filament. However, the industrial side of 3D printing is advanced, and the elements of the disruption checklist are falling into place, as demonstrated by the examples in this section.

Aerospace

Airbus expects to 3D print 30 tons of metal airplane parts by 2018. Its A350 XWB aircraft currently contains more than 1,000 3D printed parts.

The most famous 3D-printed part is probably a fuel nozzle made by GE for the Leading Edge Aircraft Propulsion (LEAP) engine. By 3D printing this nozzle, 20 parts were reduced to one, which weighs 25 percent less than the traditionally manufactured nozzle.

The company expects to use 3D printing to make many more parts for the LEAP engine, eliminating 1,000 pounds on each 6,000-pound engine.

Automotive

All major automakers use 3D printing, mostly for rapid prototyping and for making jigs and fixtures used on production lines. BMW also utilizes it to make ergonomically efficient tools that reduce worker fatigue and improve efficiency. Bentley’s 3D printers prototyped for many years before 3D printing high-precision metal parts for its EXP 10 Speed 6 luxury coupe.

The Oakridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee 3D printed a Shelby Cobra body. In addition, Japanese carmaker Daihatsu is using the Copen roadster as the basic design to which any one of 12 types of “effect skins” in 10 colors can be applied to areas of the body panels.

Toyota’s 3D printing mass-customizes the i-Road Personal Mobility Device, its one-person car. Owners will be able to customize many parts, by color, surface texture and possibly shape.

Health care

Health care’s range of 3D printing developments will probably seem commonplace in a few years as advances eclipse them.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center has 3D-printed titanium cranial implants and replaced a woman’s jaw with a 3D-printed prosthetic. In 2013, doctors replaced 75 percent of a man’s skull with a 3D-printed implant made by a company called Oxford Performance Materials. In the U.K., doctors replaced half a pelvis in a man with a rare type of cancer. Tens of thousands of replacement hip cups have been printed and implanted into patients.

Other 3D printing developments in health care include noses, skin, customized coverings for artificial limbs, cosmetic ears and bionic ears. About 95 percent of all hearing aid shells are 3D printed. The molds for about 17 million teeth aligners are printed using 3D technology every year.

3D-printed tracheas and tracheal splints are almost routinely saving newborns with serious breathing problems. The 3D printers used for this work are not always expensive, high-end machines but rather consumer-grade 3D printers.

Models of patient organs are being 3D printed and studied by surgeons before the first incision. Surgeons at Miami Children’s Hospital 3D printed a replica of a 4-year-old girl’s heart to plan her complicated surgery. Doctors at Boston’s Children’s Hospital practiced on a 3D-printed model of a teenager’s brain before operating on the real thing. Texas Children’s Hospital 3D printed the hearts, lungs, stomachs and kidneys of twins conjoined at the chest and abdomen so that surgeons could plan and practice their separation, which was a success.

Conclusion

3D printing has generated a lot of hype. Some people say it is difficult to separate the hype from reality, but doing so is simple. Anything that sounds farfetched probably is not, but it will probably take longer to happen.

In a world full of 3D printers, products and blueprints can be designed, customized, created and sold by innumerable companies and home printers.

 

John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan IP law firm based in Washington, D.C., and the author of the new book 3D Printing Will Rock the World. As the founder of Finnegan’s 3D Printing Working Group, he advises clients about how 3D printing can affect their businesses. Hornick frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and is a recognized thought leader in this space.