It seems that every day, designers and engineers are finding exciting new applications for 3D printing, from creating custom prostheses to making tools used for repairs on the International Space Station. 3D printing is considered a revolutionary technology that can transform our lives. But what are the real benefits — and the real consequences — of such a drastic change in manufacturing?
NASA Tech Briefs recently spoke with experts in various aspects of 3D printing to get their answers to this question and others. Our panel members are Buddy Byrum, Vice President of Product Management for 3D Systems; Jon Cobb, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Stratasys; Max Lobovsky, Founder of Formlabs; Dr. Conor MacCormack, Co-Founder and CEO of Mcor Technologies; and Alfonso Perez, Co-Founder and CEO of New Valence Robotics Corporation.
NASA Tech Briefs: 3D printing is infiltrating every aspect of our work and personal lives. Many are supporting the idea of a “3D printer for everyone.” What are the benefits and consequences of this idea?
Max Lobovsky: 3D printing is a tool for creating and realizing new ideas, and we find it is most relevant and powerful in the hands of engineers and designers. It is a revolutionary technology, but it is still a tool — it’s misleading to frame the technology as everything for everybody. To have a 3D printer for everyone, you have to ask how we can develop experiences and platforms that allow everyone to create.
Buddy Byrum: The question is not if everybody will have a 3D printer, but how everybody will integrate 3D printing into their lives. 3D printing is a revolutionary technology that has the ability to transform and enhance the ways in which we do nearly everything in our lives — how we work, how we play, how we create, how we dress, how we learn, and even how we eat. Remember that 3D printing is an exponential technology, and it is developing at an accelerating rate. And exponential technologies often outpace even our own imaginations. As more and more people rely on 3D printing in their daily lives, we will see powerful and impactful new applications emerge that take this technology farther than anything we can envision now.
Jon Cobb: The concept of 3D printing has been a hot topic for discussion since the introduction of the “Maker Movement” several years ago. The capabilities of 3D printing allow individuals to bring their creative concepts to reality. 3D printing can empower people with the ability to design, modify, and eventually print a part or product. There are downsides to 3D printing for everyone. These can include product safety and part quality because certification is lacking when a part is produced away from a manufacturer’s quality procedures.
Conor MacCormack: We live in exciting times. We’ll look back on this time in history and remember it as the start of a revolution — a revolution that will provide a 3D printer for everyone. There is hype, but the promise of 3D printing is as big as 2D printing. If we can take the current hype and convert it to a technology with a purpose, the possibilities are endless. I see the biggest benefit of 3D printing to be the democratization of innovation. Before this, the biggest companies in the world felt like they were the only ones able to innovate. However, 3D printing now puts that power in everyone’s hands. As long as the technology is sustainable, I don’t see any down side.
Alfonso Perez: The immediate benefit of the “3D printer for everyone” concept is just-in-time delivery of customized goods direct to the end user. However, it is important to note that with the good comes the bad. There are two primary drawbacks. First is that easy, cost-effective access to 3D printers in the home will lead to excessive use of the technology, resulting in exponential increases in plastics waste. Second, consumers do not realize that 3D printers are complex pieces of manufacturing equipment and must be treated as such.
NTB: There have been so-called “killer apps” in many industries that define the value of a technology. What are the killer apps in 3D printing, and what role do they play?
MacCormack: You could argue that there is no single killer app in 3D printing, but instead many killer apps, with new ones appearing each day. In some ways, they may seem like just another application for 3D printing, but fundamentally, they really are solving a problem and providing a profound daily benefit. For example, the killer app of doctors 3D printing maxillofacial surgical guides to vastly improve patient outcomes is immensely different from that of average consumers who create realistic 3D printed photos of family and friends for this year’s holiday gifts. These apps are making a real difference everyday in the lives of the people who use them. So I rather think of this as not a killer app, but a suite of killer apps. Without killer apps, you have a technology that nobody can use or needs. As the technology evolves, the apps will be drawn to the technology.
Cobb: We see two killer apps emerging; the first is manufacturing. This does not necessarily mean a wholesale change in manufacturing, but the integration of manufacturing into the mainstream for a wide variety of manufacturers. This implementation will take place at different times and locations within the manufacturing process. It can range from printing very simple parts for a period of time, to full-scale tooling, to a complete overhaul in a design that enables a new way of manufacturing. The second killer app is in the medical and dental field. Digital dentistry, combined with 3D printing, is having a significant impact. And, there are numerous documented cases on custom prosthetics.
Perez: The killer apps in 3D printing have yet to be invented. The future is bright for design for 3D printing. Once a toolkit exists for engineers to use to design for 3D printing, they will be able to specifically “program” a physical product for all of the required characteristics. Imagine specifically controlling the mechanical, thermal, electrical, and material properties of a product from the inside out — no conventional manufacturing technology can do that.
Byrum: 3D printing refers to a broad and interrelated ecosystem of 3D products and services, and we believe that every business and every individual will choose to engage with this ecosystem differently. Some will use production printers to manufacture complex, end-use parts in metals or high-performance plastics; others might use 3D printing to develop functional part test models, prototypes, or concept models. Doctors, on the other hand, will use 3D software, devices, and printers to virtually prepare, create instruments for, and execute a personalized surgical procedure from patient-specific data. There are many ways that 3D printing will — and in most cases, already does — impact everything in our lives.
Lobovsky: One area that I think has yet to be really understood has to do with applications that change the way people design and create. 3D printing can be a powerful tool that people use directly, not through a service bureau or prototyping shop. With this lens, 3D printing eliminates much of the process of development, enabling people to make things much faster and much cheaper. Similar to the spread of desktop software, when more people have direct access to this technology, it creates new possibilities for new, powerful ideas.
NTB: There are more and more functional materials being offered for 3D printers, and there is a demand for material integration. What are some of the new materials we can expect to see being used by 3D printers, and what will their primary applications be initially?
Byrum: Right now, we can print in more than 120 materials, from metals to edibles, and that number continues to rise. The expansion of material choices and capabilities is fueling some of the most advanced applications for 3D printing. The ability to directly print in metals allows us to produce flight-ready aerospace parts and under-hood automotive parts, for example, as well as highly intricate medical and dental devices. At the same time, new elastomeric and heatand chemical-resistant materials allow engineers to print parts for the most rigorous functional tests.Continued materials innovation will unlock bold new applications in the years to come, and allow us to reimagine what is possible with 3D printing.
MacCormack: I see materials broken up into two categories. First, there will be materials that more closely represent real-world materials used in everyday life. Second, 3D printing also enables new types of materials that have never been possible before with variable properties in different locations of the same part. Materials used for prototyping will have to be environmentally friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable.
Perez: Materials exist in many broad categories: metals, thermoplastics, photopolymer resins, biomaterials, conductive materials, and ceramics. My instincts as a mechanical and manufacturing engineer tell me that the metals space will experience the most rapid adoption and innovation. The primary applications will be in complex electromechanical systems where weight matters because of rising fuel costs — spacecraft, aircraft, and automotive. Naturally, medical comes to mind, but due to lack of process understanding and high government oversight, I believe medical comes in a close second.
Lobovsky: Most of the work to date in 3D printing materials has been trying to take more materials from those used in traditional manufacturing, and allow them to be 3D printed. This is important work and it will continue, especially with a lot of progress in high-performance metals and plastics. As the technology proliferates, we’ll start to develop materials with properties that don’t exist today, and that’s when things get really exciting.
NTB: What do you recommend to a prospective customer who needs to identify or justify current part manufacturing technology cost versus the cost of a 3D printer?
MacCormack: It is not simply comparing manufacturing costs versus the cost of the printer; it is the cost savings your business can experience by making parts early in the design cycle. If the final design of the part is known at the very first pass (which is highly unlikely), it is hard to see how conventional machining could be beaten. But we don’t live in this world. Instead, numerous changes are required through iteration, and this is where 3D printing comes in and scores big bucks. In the near term, it is very possible that traditional manufacturing methods and 3D printing will work hand-in-hand. 3D printing will be another tool in the toolbox.
Perez: First of all, the customer needs to think additive manufacturing, not rapid prototyping. This is a crucial distinction to make; additive manufacturing implies that the 3D printing process will be used in a manufacturing system to make a finished good. Depending on the 3D printing system, the customer needs to consider energy costs, machine cost, material cost, and operator cost.
Cobb: Manufacturers are constantly looking at new and different ways to make their products better, faster, and cheaper to produce. 3D printing is being looked at today by thousands of manufacturers not because it is new, but because they are trying to meet these goals. 3D printing allows a manufacturer to go directly from CAD design to part. The savings in time-to-market or eliminating the cost of the tool can be substantially beneficial to a manufacturer.
Byrum: The decision to embrace 3D printing is not a case of either/or, but rather both/and. There are certainly some parts for which traditional manufacturing is sufficient. With the availability of 24/7 cloud printing services, companies don’t even need to have a 3D printer to reap the benefits of 3D printing. However, the big idea about 3D printing is that it allows us to fundamentally rethink design and manufacturing. It allows us to create parts with infinite complexity, optimized for performance, not manufacturability. 3D printing is a game-changer, and the question for most businesses is whether they choose to use these new capabilities to disrupt their industry, or whether they get disrupted.
Lobovsky: A 3D printer is a powerful tool, but it is a tool. There will be times it isn’t appropriate for the challenge. But in today’s fast-moving world, if you need to shorten development cycles by realizing your ideas fast and cheaper, it is an essential technology. For creators inventing a world that does not yet exist, it can be revolutionary.
3D Systems www.3dsystems.com
Mcor Technologies www.mcortechnologies.com
New Valence Robotics www.nvbots.com