Mainstream and Specialist: the Twin Peaks of 3D Printing’s Appeal

Posted On 15 August 2018 Stephen Dyson

For several years, 3D printing has made a growing impression on many industries, with the impact becoming more widespread. Significant cost savings are making the technology more accessible to businesses of all sizes, in virtually any sector. Yet, at the same time, the accuracy the process can achieve for highly specialised applications continues to advance, with impressive results. Stephen Dyson, Head of Industry 4.0 at Protolabs, examines both sides of this success story.

Aerospace, automotive, healthcare, electronics. These sectors are well known for investing in 3D printing. But many others are now following suit, as new materials and new techniques increase the benefits 3D printing can bring to all kinds of projects. Plus – whether you use 3D printing for prototyping or manufacture – the technology is proving to be increasingly cost-effective.

Efficiencies three ways

Three aspects of 3D printing are making it financially attractive to increased numbers of businesses. First, its extreme precision can lead to considerable savings in material costs. As it builds an object layer by layer, it has the potential to eliminate all waste, removing the need to deal with excess material, and reducing the amount of capital tied up in raw materials.

Second, in many cases, 3D printing a product or part costs less overall than traditional manufacturing methods. This is particularly true when working in metal (when the process is known as direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS).

Finally, 3D printing is transforming the assembly line. By reducing set-up times and improving productivity, it helps companies manufacture what customers want, when they want it, while cutting processing costs and speeding up time to market. 

In-house or outsource?

Some companies with large budgets are investing in their own 3D printing equipment, or even buying 3D printing businesses. Smaller firms and start-ups are also buying their own kit – an entry-level machine can change hands for less than £1,000. But these basic models have quite serious limitations, and many new enterprises now see the advantages of on-demand services such as those offered by Protolabs. By paying for 3D printing only when they need it, companies can dedicate more of their funds to research and development, building their brand and sales promotion. They do this knowing they are supported with technical resource and expertise of an established 3D printing specialist.

Widespread use, widespread benefits

3D printing is making new product development faster and cheaper. As it becomes more accessible to a wider range of businesses, it’s helping more products get off the ground. And while manufacturers benefit from more efficient and effective prototyping, and more manufacturing options – without them having to cost more – consumers get more choice, better quality and keener prices.

Highly specific benefits too

With an ever-expanding variety of applications for 3D printing, its value is being felt in both mainstream and specialist areas. The latter includes some extremely specific uses – particularly due to huge improvements in accuracy. Complex structures can now be made that aren’t possible through other manufacturing processes, and this is leading to major advances in industry and science.

For example, Protolabs’ specialist unit in Germany is certified to print medical implants and instruments.  At this facility, 3D printing experts developed a cranial implant with an intricate, porous grill structure that lets fluid from the brain permeate and enables growth of the bone. It also has an insulating effect, which is vital to control the transmission of heat into the patient’s head. Most importantly, the additive nature of the 3D printing process – where thin layers of titanium are hardened individually – helped the implant fit as perfectly as possible.

For medical applications like this, a further, crucial, benefit of 3D printing is the speed with which such precise design and manufacture take place. When someone needs an implant, they need it as quickly as possible. This one was in the operating theatre within three weeks, with the majority of that time was taken up by logistics and transport rather than production.

The 3D effect

Not all 3D-printed products are life-savers, but the nature of the technology permits new ways of thinking in terms of the social, economic, environmental and security implications of the manufacturing process with universally favourable results. While the 3D printing evolution is at infant stage, many believe 3D printing will have the potential to inject growth into innovation, globally.