3D Printing – How will it Transform Manufacturing?

Perhaps some of you remember how stores like Kinkos and Staples transformed the ability of businesses to create presentations, booklets, and large sets of copies 24-hours per day, almost while you wait. You could walk into one of these stores located around the country with a floppy disk and walk out with printed documents, blueprints and binders for presenting to clients, without having to carry them onto the plane with you.

Did you know that today, you can go into Lowe’s retail centers and buy a 3-D printer from the Dremel company, or to Home Depot for MakerBot’s 3-D printer? Or if you prefer to stay at home, Amazon will bring any one of 11 different companies’ 3-D printers directly to your door.

Currently, most things I have seen printed on these home-use units are small dimension parts limited by the current price point of the technology. Novelty items, figurines and likenesses, “objets d’Art”.

But anyone paying attention within the manufacturing sector will know that the technology is making rapid advances in both size and types of materials used. For example, WinSun New Materials Corp. in Suzhou, China is using a large format printer to create layer-cake-like concrete panels that are then assembled into pre-fab homes. Their current build rate is 10 homes printed and assembled per day.

More germane to manufacturing, a 2013 Manufacturing the Future Summit revealed the Urbee 2 developed by Kor Ecologic, Inc. out of Manitoba Canada. Inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame, the entire body shell is 3-D printed, and laid over a tubular steel frame. The company is now raising funds to bring the prototype on a coast-to-coast trip across the US.

If you are keeping tabs on Connecticut’s 3-D market you’ll have heard about the [LINK: CT Center for Advanced Technologies work with additive / subtractive machining. This Innovation Center is using powdered metal deposition to build layers, in combination with traditional metal removal techniques. A notable aerospace engine manufacturer has also been utilizing this technique to re-furbish turbine blades.

Federal- and State-sponsored research and technical assistance programs play vital roles in commercializing the technologies, and lowering barriers to entry for smaller manufacturing companies. CCAT, for example, offers a technical assistance program where their highly-trained staff helps companies with less than 100 employees get into developing 3-D models and prototypes.

Wohlers Report, a comprehensive annual review of the 3-D printing industry, states: “the market for 3D printing, consisting of all products and services worldwide, grew to $3.07 billion last year”. (1)

Pricewaterhouse Coopers conducted a survey last year showing 67 out of 100 surveyed manufacturers are already making use of 3-D printing, with another 25 / 100 planning to do so within the next year.

In Summary, 3-D printing has proven successful for:

  • Rapid prototyping
  • One-off conceptual designs
  • Refining a final design through multiple iterations
  • Shortening lead time by reducing tooling changes
  • Creating new, innovative part geometries
  • Reducing bulk material removal and hogging
  • Creating of custom fixtures and jigs
  • Creating parts fit to a unique individual (i.e. prosthesis)
  • Reducing part weight
  • Integrating complex geometries unavailable through traditional means


(1) Terry Wohlers. “Wohlers Report 2014 Uncovers Annual Growth of 34.9% for 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Industry: Industry Exceeds $3 Billion Milestone.” Wohlers Associates, May 1, 2014. http://wohlersassociates.com/press63.html

(2) Stratasys Corp., “How 3D Printing Will Continue to Transform Manufacturing”, 2014.[U1]

What do you use 3-D Printing for?

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