A New Dimension for 3D Printing

Engineers have been relying on 3D printing for rapid prototyping for nearly 20 years. Now the technology is starting to edge into manufactured products.

Jon Cobb, executive vice president of marketing at Stratasys Ltd., the biggest maker of 3D printers, says that some aerospace vendors have already started using a few printed parts in non-critical areas of airplanes. Survey Copter, a French maker of drones, uses some printed parts in its unmanned aircraft. GE’s president recently said that there will be printed parts in the company’s next generation of jet engines.

Stratasys also makes a line of printers for dental implants and similar orthodontics. They provide much faster turnaround than traditional dental labs.

“In the last three-to-five years, there’s been growing interest in manufacturing. That’s Nirvana for 3D,” Cobb says.

Stratasys, based in Minneapolis, is growing fast as the market expands. It has forecast sales this year of over $430 million, up from $215 million last year. Most of the growth reflects its acquisition of Israeli company Objet Ltd. in December.

One key to getting into more manufacturing plants is increasing the number of industrial grade plastics that can be used in the printers. Cobb says Stratasys provides nine different ABS plastics including one that is qualified as “flight worthy.”

One area of manufacturing in which 3D printers are playing a growing role is in making plastic molds for castings or injection molding.

3D printing will probably never make sense for large scale manufacturing. Even though Stratasys makes machines that can produce parts as big as 36 inches long and wide and 24 inches high, large parts take a very long time to produce. That’s because each layer of plastic that is built up in the printing process is thinner than a human hair. To prototype a large piece can take more than 24 hours.

Amir Veresh, director of strategic alliances at Stratasys , says that large engineering shops, such as the one at Daimler Benz in Germany, have bought a number of Stratasys’s largest machines that cost up to $600,000. He says they use them to make prototypes of bumpers or instrument panels.

Even today, 3-D printing sounds simpler than it is. Engineers often find that their engineering designs, developed on familiar CAD systems, don’t integrate smoothly with the 3D printers on the market. Just as people who wanted paper prints 30 years ago had to go to a professional print shop, engineers often need to use a service bureau to make their prototypes.

Image by Bill Bulkeley

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