3D Printing- "The real deal or not quite ready for prime-time?"
We all love technology. From smartphones to computers to the ever-present use of apps to run our lives, we are inundated with new fangled contraptions and useful resources.
The latest hot technology that you may have heard of is 3D printing. What? The printing of manufactured parts? Not exactly. Most people are familiar with traditional printing as it has now been around for over 500 years and people are taught to read at an early age and have handled books and newspapers.
How does it work?
But now comes this 3D printing process. How does it work? Very simply actually. Over the last 30 years, engineers and manufacturers have used increasingly powerful software to create 3D and 2D models and drawings of items to be manufactured. Files can now be transmitted from engineers directly to shop floor machinery to produce parts using increasingly powerful machine tools with advanced computer controls.
Those same files and models can also be sent to 3D printing machines that take the file of the part(s) and slice them like you slice an onion only with no tears and much thinner slices. The machine then lays down part material in layers from the data model, building up the part from nothing, layer by layer. This laying down process is repeated until the part is created and then taken from the printer to be used. This “additive” process is called printing because it works like a traditional printing press that adds ink in layers to produce a final printed document.
Can it work in my shop?
Now that we know how it works in theory, can it work on the shop floor? The answer is “Yes, but…..” .
Yes, the process is great for rapid prototyping of parts that would take weeks and money to change even the smallest of dimensions on a part. If simply adjusting a dimension in a file and re-printing the part could change the part, the prototype process can be done much quicker and less expensively. Right now, the material that can be printed is somewhat limited but increasing rapidly. Complex parts that would have to be made out of multiple components can now be made as one piece that can actually function after printing.
I recently saw a plastic link chain and a plastic gear train that worked immediately after printing without additional machining. These parts were made on a machine that cost under $5000 sitting on desktop. This same manufacturer duplicated a part in plastic material that they currently make from steel. While the tolerances on the steel part were quite tight, the plastic one had all the features such as a square end drive and a keyway in the shaft.
Limitations of 3D printing
The process isn’t ready for general manufacturing yet due to a couple of factors. One is the speed at which parts are produced. If a volume part will need to be produced, 3D printing isn’t fast enough. However, low volume or single piece production is the main arena right now and will work successfully when close tolerances can be held without the need for secondary operations. Even with this tolerance problem, the cost to produce low volume parts is good enough to justify use by manufacturers.
While the types of materials that can be used in 3D printing are getting larger, it remains to be seen if traditional materials used for most parts can be incorporated into the process. Even still, some testing will need to be done to see if the structural strength of the 3D parts is the same as those made from bar/flat stock, forgings and castings.
What does the future hold?
If these minor issues (speed and strength of materials) can be overcome, I see a bright future for 3D printing in shops as these machines are less expensive to make than existing machine tools and even large parts will be able to be produced less expensively than those made on traditional machines.
Perhaps we will get to a time when the images we saw in Star Trek, where food was created before our eyes, will actually occur. Everybody will own a 3D printing machine that will make a variety of parts on demand that can be used by regular folks for home repair or other daily occurrences.
Check out our new "Exhaust Notes" video using the link under the picture of my 1967 Chevelle to the right. In this month's video, I'll give you my take on 3D printing and how it is being used out in the manufacturing marketplace.
To check out our Profit Power video series, click on this link. http://tinyurl.com/age9a9n In the coming months, look for more and exciting content that will surely help you improve your business in this very competitive industry.
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