The Coming Age of 3-D Printing
ISE Magazine -Volume: 49, Number: 04
By Mohsen Attaran and Paisley Stidham

Three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping, has been around for decades. The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems Corp. He named the machine Stereolithography Apparatus. The technology was expensive and not feasible for the general market in the early days. As we moved into the 21st century, however, costs drastically decreased, allowing 3-D printers to find their way into many industries.

Evolving technologies and trends

Printer cost and capabilities: Typically, 3-D printers either have higher capabilities at a higher price or have more primitive capabilities for a lower price. However, during the past few years the gap is closing between these two classifications. These printers often have more high-end capabilities but come at a lower cost.

Printing speed: Speed of printing is an important performance factor and a key challenge that, in some instances, prevents 3-D printing from being a practical means of manufacturing. True, in some applications, such as the production of prosthetics, 3-D printing is fast in comparison to standard manufacturing times. But it still takes hours and even days to produce a product.

Autonomous abilities: While many 3-D printers do perform some tasks without human intervention, many still require upkeep and supervision to ensure the printing process is accurate. Fully autonomous printers would reduce the need for the technology to be monitored by a human, making 3-D printing more practical. Some “hobbyist” 3-D printers already are seeing a shift toward autonomous capabilities.

Industries that benefit from 3-D printing technology
In aerospace, 3-D printing has been pushed beyond the realm of prototyping and has become an effective means of advancing the way parts and tools are produced. 3-D printing makes it possible to print objects in remote locations, making delivery of goods no longer a restriction and enabling 3-D printing in space. NASA has been testing 3-D printing in zero gravity in hopes of establishing on-demand manufacturing for astronauts. This would allow astronauts in space to make component parts for maintenance and repair of the International Space Station, decreasing the need to shuttle parts from Earth – greatly reducing the lead-time on replacement parts, which obviously reduces inventory and costs.

The medical industry has found revolutionary ways to implement 3-D printing. Fabricating custom implants, such as hearing aids, and prosthetics were some of the first ways that 3-D printing transformed the medical industry, Barry Berman reported for Business Horizons. The custom-made implants reduce surgery time and cost as well as reduce the risk of postoperative complications, according to Bogue. Lead-time also would have to have molds made, and then the products would be fabricated. This process could take months, while 3-D printing allows prosthetics to be fabricated in only a day, sometimes even in a few hours.

In the retail industry, 3-D printed shoes and clothing already have made their way into the market, and other 3-D printed fashion and consumer goods are slowly making their way. Retail is poised to gain some major advantages from innovations in 3-D printing. According to John Hauer, cofounder and CEO of 3DLT, 3-D printing’s rapid prototyping abilities will create localized manufacturing, reducing supply chain costs and creating better products overall.