3Dprinting grabs a lot of attention — as much for its futuristic potential as for what it can do today. Send a 3D printer to the Moon, some imagine, and print out a city. Is your coffee maker dying? Just print yourself a new one.

The Central Identification Laboratory of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) uses 3D printing technology to help identify POW/MIA remains. In this photo, a skull model is removed from the 3D printer powder bed.

But engineering organizations are doing a lot more than you might realize with today’s 3D printing technology, which has already made huge advances. It is delivering quantifiable business benefits to a rapidly increasing number of the most aggressive and innovative engineering organizations.

Companies are using 3D printing on a daily basis to boost innovation at every stage of the design and engineering process, creating more killer prototypes from concept through manufacturing. While novel applications abound, 3D printing is no longer a novelty.

Three-dimensional printers, which create real physical objects from 3D data, are paralleling the evolution of document printers. They’re getting faster. The price is falling, with entry-level printers costing under $5,000. Multicolor printing is here. Output quality is soaring. Devices are becoming easier to use and are more office friendly.

Current 3D printing technology is transforming early adopters in engineering organizations into high performers. It’s helping designers and engineers get around traditional business constraints such as limited time and budgets, the complex dynamics of working with colleagues and external partners, and the technical limitations of design tools.

With a brilliant idea today, designers can simply CAD-up a concept, push a button, print a model, walk it around the company, and inspire executives to produce it. Designers and engineers have never been in a better position to shine. With low-cost, high-volume, fully automated prototyping technology, they can innovate through every phase of design from concept through detail design, analysis, and manufacturing — and even influence sales and marketing. They are creating more and being more creative.

Real-World Applications

3D model skull (right) next to the original.

The Cisco Consumer Business Group (CBG) in Denmark uses 3D printing to produce some of the world’s most elegant consumer electronic equipment. CBG’s ability to produce prototype after prototype helps the company combine the time-honored tradition of Scandinavian design — functional, minimal, and affordable — with the hyper-paced world of consumer electronics.

Footwear manufacturer The Timberland Company uses 3D printing to more quickly and affordably produce prototypes for new arch supports, tread patterns, heel stabilizers, and materials. By switching from handcrafting prototypes to 3D printing, the company has experienced a more than 30-fold reduction in prototype cost, a reduction in prototype creation time from one week to 90 minutes, and a 33 percent reduction in design time.

Stanley Black & Decker uses 3D printing to help make its tools leap from the store shelf, feel good in the consumer’s hand, and ultimately trigger a purchase. The company is creating higher-quality prototypes overnight instead of the week or more CNC machining and hand-painting required.

When Honda Performance Development, the single engine supplier to the Indy Car series, had just 11 months to develop, test, and refine a new engine before its first race, they turned to 3D printing. Serving their prototyping and metal casting needs, Honda saved money, designed for performance versus manufacturability, and crossed the finish line on time.

Clarks — a world leader in footwear for men, women, and children — uses 3D printing to dramatically reduce time and cost. It now creates detailed, colorful physical shoe models in hours instead of the two weeks it used to take for manufactured samples to return.

Why 3D Printing Makes Sense

Stanley Black & Decker uses a ZPrinter to help design its DeWalt tools and tool cases.

Recent advances in 3D printing’s speed, affordability, color capability, and office friendliness are tipping points for product companies that have traditionally outsourced their prototyping. Developing prototypes in house is now an attractive investment with a tangible, positive return.

Inkjet-based 3D printers, for example, can now print a typical part in less than two hours. Material costs are as low as $2 per cubic inch. Organizations cannot only bring prototyping in house, they can have more models earlier in the design process.

3D printed parts are increasingly versatile. You can build them to be strong and economical, and many can be drilled, tapped, sanded, and painted or electroplated to replicate the look and feel of the final product. Or you can build durable plastic parts that rival injection molding’s accuracy, material properties, detail, and surface finish. Plastic parts enable engineers to verify designs for form, fit, and function prior to full-scale production, eliminating costly modifications to production tooling and shortening time to market.

And in special applications areas, the 3D printed parts are the end product or render the end product through a second step mold or casting process within hours or a few days. This is particularly true in the dental and jewelry industries where print head technology combines durable plastics with wax, or 100% wax is used for exceptional-quality, fine feature output that has revolutionized the production process.

3D printers used to be complicated and make a mess. Not anymore. You can find machines that automate most of their operations — including hands-free support removal or recycling the composite powder left over from a build — making these printers fit right into the professional office. If not for the 3D output, you might think they’re document printers.

The Color Factor

Planmeca, a Finland-based maker of dental equipment, uses a 3D Systems Z Printer to print out skull models for pre-operative planning.

One of the biggest advances in 3D printing is the ability of some devices to print a single object in any combination or pattern of hundreds of thousands of colors. This is as important as the emergence of multicolor document printing. It permits not only multicolored objects, but the application of complex texture designs — even photographs — on parts. This flexibility enhances communication, improves designs, and provides a better understanding of what a final product will look like before expensive production steps begin.

Since many products, especially consumer products, have sophisticated color patterns, labels, and eye-catching packaging, it’s vital to help others envision these visual design elements early in the design cycle. Historically, companies have resorted to the time-consuming and tedious process of painting their models. To evaluate packaging and labels, companies have typically relied on computer renderings alone. Full-spectrum color 3D printers can now handle all of this.

Full-spectrum color 3D printing capability also enables you to print text and engineering labels on parts. Why do you need color for labels? A monochrome 3D printer only enables you to print in the color of the build material, usually white (unlike a monochrome document printer that actually gives you both black and white, with the white being the paper). Revealing the printed text on a prototype requires a multicolor 3D printer.

Labels matter. No one would consider producing a CAD drawing without some form of engineering label to provide information about the drawing. The same goes for a 3D part: without any label on the part, a lot of information is lost. With an engineering label, one can quickly see the part name, its scale, when it was printed, who designed it, etc.

Full-spectrum color 3D printing also makes marking up parts quick and easy. Arrows and other highlighting techniques can spotlight what has changed in the latest iteration of the part. Different colors or patterns can convey instructions when a complete design is ready to be transferred to manufacturing (or a supplier). By using multiple colors, it is easy to highlight part surfaces that need to be machined (e.g., holes that need to be drilled), or the assembly order (e.g., blue first, red second, and yellow last). Designers can get creative and start adding visual effects like shadows onto a part to enhance communication. The possibilities are limited only by the designer’s imagination.

Data analysis is another area where full-spectrum color can offer tremendous value. It can be difficult to visualize the output of a finite element analysis (FEA) if you’re only looking at the data on a flat computer screen. Better to have a color-coded physical model you can examine and pass around the room. Thermal analysis, stress/strain analysis, geological analysis, and more can now be applied to a physical 3D model in multiple colors, vividly representing data for better understanding.

Improved printing resolution means better application of colors than ever. A company selling soft drinks can now design and print various versions of can labels directly onto a can model with enough detail to read the ingredient list and scan the bar code. A high-resolution, full-spectrum color 3D printer can be purchased for as low as $24,900.

Education

3D printers are proliferating in schools, helping design and engineering students — the innovators of tomorrow — gain experience with advanced technologies they’ll use in their careers. 3D printing at the Royal College of Art, for example, has “enabled students to quickly obtain 3D physical models at a fraction of the previous price so they could receive more feedback earlier in the design process,” said Martin Watmough, manager of the institution’s Rapidform digital manufacturing facility. “As a result, there was suddenly every opportunity for multiple iterations. Communication improved dramatically, resulting in significantly improved designs. The transformation was remarkable.”

3D printers help ensure that large classes can successfully handle all the prototypes needed to complete final projects. Other disciplines, like art and medicine, are also finding value in 3D printing sculpture and biology models from CT scans. And, finally, middle schools are gaining access to 3D printing through special programs, entry-level price points, and 3D printer kits that students build as part of the course work. “Students can now design and test their ideas instantly, making these machines invaluable in the classroom,” said Dave White, an advanced design and technology skills teacher from the UK.

Beyond Manufacturing

These applications just scratch the surface of what a 3D printer can actually do today. There’s a big world of 3D printing beyond the engineering workstation and the manufacturing company:

  • Architecture firms like Foster + Partners create beautiful, accurate building models in a fraction of the time of handcrafting them. And Myles Burke enhances their buildings with lifelike models of people.
  • Entertainment companies like Pixar use 3D printing to develop characters for their animated films.
  • Mass customization pioneers like Cubify.com provide the consumer with a meeting place to create and make in 3D, and designers and apps developers with a marketplace to monetize their skills and designs.
  • 3D mappers like LandPrint.com generate 3D maps on demand, transforming satellite imagery into physical 3D landscapes, relying on the speed, affordable materials, and multicolor capability of its 3D printing technology.
  • Hospitals like The Walter Reed Army Medical Center are using 3D printing to save lives. Doctors are improving the success of delicate surgeries by using 3D printed models as a roadmap for treatment.
  • Scholars like those at Cornell University and China University of Technology are preserving ancient artifacts and heritage buildings.
  • Anthropologists like those at the University of Western Ontario are identifying the human remains of missing soldiers, providing comfort for families.

As you can see, 3D printing has become a signature capability for the world’s highest-performing organizations in engineering and beyond. It’s putting their designers and engineers in a better position to align their goal of great design with the goals of their organization. They can explore more ideas while saving money. They can present iterations in a way that encourages group development. They can inspire prospective customers. They can get the green light to make their designs real. They can create more, and see their creations succeed in the marketplace.

Although printing a real city is still a fantasy, and that working coffee maker is still slightly out of reach, the next time you hear about the wonders of 3D printing in the future, know that for many, the future is now.

This article was written by Buddy Byrum, Vice President, Product and Channel Management, for 3D Systems, Rock Hill, SC. For more information, contact Buddy Byrum at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit http://info.hotims.com/40432-121 .


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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