cutimage - Fotolia

Unlocking the disruptive potential of 3D printers

We look at where 3D printing started, highlights some current innovations and assesses where the technology might be heading next

The idea of “printing” components and whole products on-demand has the potential to redefine the way we develop, manufacture, distribute and maintain material goods. It also promises to create an entire new industry that has the potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing.

The concept of mass production began to break down with the advent of PCs in the 1980s, and has continued unabated with the rise of software-defined processing. The first patents relating to additive printing – now more commonly referred to as 3D printing – were filed in the same decade.

Software has since redefined the production line, turning it into a virtual conveyor belt controlling all steps in the production process – and encompassing a wide range of individualisation options – ultimately reducing the concept of “mass” to “one”. For example, 99% of all hearing aids are now 3D printed, combining a standard electronics platform with custom 3D printed ear inserts.

However as with the concept of artificial intelligence (AI), the concept of 3D printing has suffered from decades of hype – from futurologists predicting the advent of the third industrial society, to the Maker Movement bent on making 3D printing freely available for the masses with the vision of a coffee machine sized box in the home able to spit out any component needed for repairs.

The realistic take on 3D printing is much less glamorous. Few companies in this sector are profitable yet, but that will change over the next five years. Today, the technology is a hotbed of development with significant investor interest.

The market leaders – measured by revenue in the 3D printing industry – are Stratasys, 3D Systems and Materialise. These three companies have been around since the 1980s and developed the basic patents that still dominate the industry.

US-based Stratasys, the originator of fused deposition modelling (FDM) printing, is the first billion-dollar company in the business, and by far the biggest. Its activities span CAD software, printers addressing a wide range of requirements and technologies, consulting and direct 3D manufacturing.

3D Systems, also based in the US, originated stereolithography (SLA) printing and divides its business into three segments: products, materials and services.

Belgium-based Materialise is a leader in binder jet technology, with business segments divided into 3D printing software, medical and industrial production systems.

Traditional printer makers are also getting in on the act, with HP and Ricoh introducing 3D printers. 

Read more about 3D printing

HP Inc rolls out its first 3D printer, with hopes that it will revolutionise manufacturing.

Samsung has established an advanced technology team in its mobile division as it looks to invest in future areas of growth

Addressing a wide range of user demands

3D printing is still a disappointing consumer product – you actually have to study a thick manual very thoroughly, and have a working knowledge of the materials involved. So for the merely curious, the 3D printing experience has been plagued by nozzles that jam, filament that breaks, models that stick to the platform, sticky resin that has to be cleaned, sagging supports that have to be removed – the list goes on.

3D printing in industrial processes took off in niche processes, especially in product development in manufacturing, biomedical, jewellery, even food. The automotive vertical industry has led this development with rapid prototyping and rapid expansion of customisation capabilities such as continuous body parts production for F1 racing cars. The lower barriers to entry have allowed hundreds of smaller specialised companies, such as Jet Cubed in the UK and Engineer3d in Australia, with the right know-how to gain significant competitive advantage.

Two important milestones have been achieved: Sufficiently powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software; and affordable plastic printing hardware using low-cost FDM and binder jet printers for modelling, prototyping and creating moulds for casting to facilitate mass production.

Two challenges still remain: User friendliness and higher levels of standardisation so users can mix and match more freely. There is a need for better resins and filaments that are user-friendly and get the job done, including materials such as graphene, with much higher levels of strength than plastics. Recently, HP printed a chain link weighing 250g in 30 minutes using multijet fusion technology. The link can lift up to 4.5 tons.

Innovation is also moving 3D printing into completely new building materials, notably in the medical and biological fields. 3D bioprinters print skin tissue, heart tissue and blood vessels suitable for surgery and transplantation using products such as Organovo’s NovoGen MMX Bioprinter. Others, like Lazarus 3D and Sahas Softtech, make miniature pre-surgical organ models, or print more simplistic replicas of organs – including brains and kidney tissues – so scientists can carry out research on them.

FDM (fused deposition modelling)

In the consumer market we find FDM printers from hundreds of manufacturers. FDM uses thermoplastics deposited in layers to create a 3D printed object. FDM printers typically use inexpensive plastic filament, but are susceptible to nozzle and filament jamming as well as sticking to the base platform and sagging unless supported.

More expensive devices can handle nylon and a variety of plastic blends (mixed with wood, ceramics, metals, carbon fibre, etc). Filaments are available in many colours. FDM is currently found in printers including the Ultimaker 2+, Makerbot Replicator 2X Experimental, 3D Systems’ Cube 3, Zortrax Inventure and Creatr x1 from Leapfrog.

SLA (stereolithography) technology

This is widely used in production design environments, with printers such as Form 2 from Formlabs targeting the small to medium-sized enterprise market in general, and more vertical-specific printers such as DWSLab Xfab machines for the jewellery and dental sectors.

SLA is also an additive method. However, it uses a curable photopolymer – typically a liquid resin – that is hardened by applying laser light or UV light. SLA printers build the models from top to bottom, the build platform lifts the model upwards, out of the resin bath. SLA printers consistently produce higher resolution objects than FDM printers, but they use proprietary resins and cannot be exchanged between printers from different makers.

Multijet printing (MJP)

MJP is a high-end product class embodied in HP Voxel (HP calls it multijet fusion printing), ProJet from 3D Systems and Poly Jet technology from Stratasys.

MJP is akin to SLA, but avoids the time-consuming post-processing. Prototypes are built with gel-like support materials that are readily dissolvable in water.

MJP can manufacture models with high resolution and can print in multiple materials for the desired degree of tensile strength and durability typically used in the jewellery and dental industry. However, the high price of these printers makes MJP most suited for large-scale productions.

Binder jet (BJ) or powder bed technique

BJ is a 3D printing approach that reduced the cost of industrial 3D printers with products from Stratasys and ExOne’s industrial printer range, as well as consumer products such as Addwii’s X1 and Aniwaa’s Mbot.

Similar to the SLS process, printer heads eject a binder material along with coloured dye onto a layer of powder, fusing them layer-by-layer into a plaster model. Unfused powders provide adequate support for the “overhanging” designs, so simultaneous deposition of support structures is rarely required. Moreover, binder jet 3D printers can print in multiple colours and materials, and have multiple printer heads for faster printing.

One of the major drawbacks of binder jetting is that the final product usually lacks strength and has a poorer surface finish than SLA or SLS. This means all models require post-production strengthening with materials such as melted wax, cyanoacrylate glue, or epoxy.

Startup Ideas2cycles uses ExOne’s BJ to print customised bicycle components in stainless steel and bronze, halving production costs and reducing production time by 80%.

Selective laser sintering (SLS)

This involves a process where powdered forms of thermoplastic, metal, glass or ceramic material are sintered by high-power laser beams in a layer-by-layer fashion.

SLS is mostly for heavy duty products such as the ValueArc MA5000-S1 from Mutoh, which makes use of arc welding technology to deposit large amounts of metal cheaply. SLS yields models with a smoother surface finish and facilitates the production of delicate structures with high accuracy. Furthermore, the unsintered powders can be re-used, making it less costly than SLA.

However, SLS remains significantly more expensive than BJ and FDM, due mainly to the cost of the printer. In addition, SLS printers can be potentially hazardous due to the presence of lasers, pistons and gas chambers that can reach extremely high temperatures and therefore require expert handling.

Where to start – and where it may end

3D printing demonstrates numerous innovative features and can change the dynamics of a business significantly by introducing fast prototyping and product individualisation in a mass production environment.

But success depends on a well-thought-out strategy for implementation and operations. It requires insightful operators, as there are still many undocumented features in these products. Bringing in an external specialist advisor may be a very good investment when contemplating 3D printing.

In 2015, a startup called Carbon3D announced a novel modification to SLA, in the form of continuous liquid interface production (Clip). This simplifies traditional SLA and increases the production speed due to its combination of speed, structural integrity and ability to fabricate complex structures. Using oxygen to cure Clip is a tuneable photochemical process which rapidly decreases production times, removes the layering effect and provides a technology that pushes 3D printing to the next level. But the company is yet to deliver a commercial offering.

Another approach to watch is the Ember project from CAD supplier Autodesk, which represents the first move by a software company into the hardware market. Autodesk has posted the open source design files under a Creative Commons licence. In this way, Ember can leverage an entire ecosystem for online, connected and multi-station 3D printing, supported by the Spark fund, which involves and finances any 3D printing company that can contribute to developing what Autodesk calls “the future of making things”. Ember is used by Asius Technologies to 3D print its Adel in-ear monitor module, speeding production and allowing for customisation.

Technology is evolving fast, but 3D printing will need to become easier to use and support a greater variety of resins before it is ready to power manufacturing.

Bernt Ostergaard is service director at analyst firm Quocirca.

Read more on Computer peripherals and printers