3-D printing famously endured a “hype cycle” circa 2012-2015, when popular media took note of the technology and ran with it. Common headlines of the time dubbed 3-D printing a technology right out of Star Trek while many consumer publications and tradeshows (including mainstay CES) cried out for placement of a 3-D printer in every home. This straight-out-of-sci-fi solution would let kids make their own Christmas presents! Rockstars became brand ambassadors. 3-D printing was The Next Big Thing.
Until it wasn’t.
The crash followed and it hit hard, with the resulting whiplash changing the headlines: suddenly 3-D printing wasn’t a savior, it was “dead.” Kids didn’t know how to design their own toys to make, parents had problems calibrating print beds and cleaning material jams and the consumer craze fizzled. With many a token Yoda head landing in trash cans, 3-D printing was laid to (popular) rest.
But the industry kept going. Away from the eye of mainstream media, R&D efforts continued apace — and they focused on industrial, rather than consumer, applications.
Research and development didn’t stay in the lab, though; testing with collaborative partners brought new technologies and new portfolios of engineering-grade plastics and previously hard-to-print metals into initial installations and, slowly, into customers’ facilities and onto the market.
Industry 4.0 is gaining momentum and the world is again taking notice of 3-D printing. Usage is rising as capabilities are increasingly up to the challenge of demanding manufacturing environments and end-use conditions. Digitizing the manufacturing workflow, with palpable impact on the supply chain, is appealing to businesses, governments and users alike. More agility, more on-demand and just-in-time production, lower costs, new geometries: the benefits are many.
Following the wild swinging of the pendulum during the consumer hype days, with barely a breath between “3-D printing is for everyone” and “3-D printing is dead,” there’s need for a steadier stance in observation several technological generations later. Rather than “a 3-D printer in every home,” now there’s some level of inundation of “3-D printing is saving the world” and “Your new [house/car/liver] will be 3-D printed.”
Headlines today are still dazzled by the “amazing” qualities of 3-D printing, with advances in particularly medical, aerospace and construction applications drawing significant attention. Lives have been saved through the use of 3-D printed implants and organ models (true); aircraft fly today with 3-D printed components (true); buildings have been constructed in shorter time frames with 3-D printed concrete (true).
Underlying each of these claims, though, is a sturdier reality.
Lives have been saved because highly trained medical specialists employed a variety of tools to develop the right solution, putting 3-D printing to use alongside advanced imaging machinery and software and in the hands of cross-disciplinary teams. Most parts installed in aerospace today are relatively small, and few are mission-critical; all are validated through thousands of test cycles to meet or exceed the same standards as legacy parts. Buildings may have been 3-D printed in 24 hours, but that’s only for the concrete extrusion and discounts the necessary manual labor to install plumbing, windows, doors, electricity, a roof and all the other components that differentiate a shed from a livable house or functional building.
Life-changing and life-saving applications for 3-D printing are among the most commonly inflated. Everyone loves a feel-good story, and it’s nice to see advanced technology help a young amputee throw a ball again, or families in developing countries have a home again after being displaced by disaster.
These solutions are real. It’s the way they’re presented that can pose a problem in perception.
3-D printing — or additive manufacturing — in 2018 fits into the manufacturing industry. And the manufacturing industry is relatively boring. Sorry. But it should be; it’s how things are made, and that’s somewhat less than glamorous, though no less intriguing and innovative for it.
Perhaps your next car won’t itself be 3-D printed, but don’t be surprised if some customization is possible, or if a replacement knob comes off a 3-D printer. Initial use cases are still trickling down to the general public, with spare parts and personalized goods already at hand. Many are also at foot, as footwear is another industry embracing the personalization possible with 3-D scanning and 3-D printing technologies creating perfectly-fit insoles and shoes, as well as mass produced shoes already on the market with 3-D printed midsoles that aren’t custom-fit but are ready to put a spring in thousands of steps. Several applications have already seen mass adoption of 3-D printing, with hearing aids and orthodontic aligners leading the way.
Many of the manufacturing applications for 3-D printing are less exciting, though, lower-profile than rehoming the displaced, less visible than a pair of running shoes, less immediately tangible than a hearing aid.
The production floor is seeing widening adoption in applications unseen by consumers, as tooling, jigs and fixtures custom-made for a given production job can be made on-site, reducing the time involved and removing the need to outsource tooling creation. Such unseen applications are proving some of the most fertile grounds for adoption in manufacturing today.
Often, the spectacular cases of 3-D printing in an exceptional usage for great personal impact are just that: personal. A functional 3-D printed bionic arm is a stunning achievement, but until it becomes more of a norm in the creation and availability of prostheses, it stands as a singular example rather than a statement of sweeping change. The quieter applications running behind the scenes on the production line are indicative of a trend toward sea change in how things are made.
Rather than focusing on the magic of 3-D printing, the manufacturing industry is increasingly looking to the mundane as a path toward validation and adoption. And that’s extraordinary.