3D Printing Poised to Alter the Manufacturing Landscape, are Automation Suppliers ready?


As 3D printing continues to evolve, the technology has the potential to become one of the next manufacturing game changers. 3D printing, also coined as additive manufacturing, has existed since the 1980s mainly using plastics. There are many companies utilizing the printers nowadays to create new products or to improve old ones. This revolutionary technology has gradually enhanced industries’ operational processes.

Many might ask how exactly does a 3D printer work? Well, a three dimensional object is modeled by a designer using software such as computer-aided design (CAD), then the design is sent to the printer and the material is selected. The design that goes into the printer is built three dimensionally, layer by layer, using raw materials. Additive manufacturing involves sending the raw materials through a 3D printer to create an object comprised of that particular material. These printers commonly use door interlocks for safety reasons during the printing process. Considerations need to be made for the material handling before and after the piece is printed and usually robotic arms are used when the process is automated. Typically, 3D printers are used in low volume, highly specialized manufacturing situations; it certainly has many advantages to traditional manufacturing.

Poised to replace injection molding, 3D printing can easily handle complex designs and print an item with multiple parts at once. With injection molding, parts often need to be manufactured separately and then assembled. Additionally, injection molding only comes into play with a limited amount of materials whereas 3D printing can use a wide range of materials to produce items. 3D printers can also produce unique shapes not possible with other manufacturing methods.  With the current 3D printers on the market, each printer differs based on what types of materials are used. Using the printers we currently have, we are able to print with plastics, metals, ceramics, glass, paper, and even living cells (dubbed as 4D printing).

Although 3D printing will not completely eliminate traditional manufacturing, the technology has the potential to reshape manufacturing not only in the U.S., but in other foreign countries. As President Barack Obama emphatically stated in the 2013 State of the Union address, “3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” Using the printing technology will reduce the energy used in the manufacturing industry while also producing fewer waste byproducts.

As for the future of this technology, VDC Research predicts that the 3D printing will impact the manufacturing field in more ways than one. VDC likens the disruptive nature of 3D printing to IoT, Cloud computing, Mobile Internet, and others. 3D printing should be considered a viable option for companies as it can disrupt traditional manufacturing in the food, military, electronics, medical, consumer products, and automotive industries. This type of printing lessens the waste and the carbon footprint that manufacturing has on the Earth.

With the help of automation suppliers, 3D printing can improve significantly as there are still many technological roadblocks primarily around safety, material handling and process control.  Some opportunities for suppliers include sensors for the printing head position as well as flow sensors for the plastic and other material inks that are used in the more specialized machines.

One of the biggest challenges in 3D printing is mass production. If companies need to produce thousands of products in a short amount of time, traditional manufacturing methods are faster and more cost effective. This specialized type of printing is best used in a small batch, high mix manufacturing context, however this could be changing. New techniques involve moving the object below multiple printer heads instead of moving an individual head above the object.  3D printing still has multiple hurdles to overcome however manufacturers are quickly developing novel solutions that apply the technology in innovative ways. 

by Regina Yip - Industrial Automation and Sensors team

with contributions from Frank Bertini - Snr. Analyst IAS