Additive Manufacturing Series #1 – 3D Printing with Plenty of Promise

April 10, 2013

If you’ve been thinking that Additive Manufacturing is just another short-lived technology that will never catch on, think again; according to a Wohlers report, the number of 3D printers in the market has grown from just 355 in 2008 to over 23,000 today—a 6500% increase in less than five years.

Over the next few weeks, we will take an in-depth look at this important technology, learning about the opportunities it presents and speaking with engineers, entrepreneurs, and pioneers in additive manufacturing who will provide business insights into this developing technology.

Additive Manufacturing—which actually falls under the larger umbrella of 3D Printing—is hardly a recent innovation.  The technology has existed since the 1980s, but it has only come into the spotlight in the last few years as falling system prices have brought it within reach of small companies and even some individuals.  Despite this slow start, however, it holds the potential to truly disrupt many aspects of the manufacturing landscape.

3D printing can be roughly grouped into two main categories: hobbyist 3D printing, which includes individuals with comparatively cheap machines printing plastic objects in their homes, and industrial 3D printing, more commonly referred to as Additive Manufacturing.

Until very recently, Additive Manufacturing was more closely associated with the printing of prototypes.  With the growing ability to print low-cost, solid objects with remarkable accuracy and precision, however, Additive Manufacturing holds tremendous promise as a full-scale production method.  Design changes can be implemented immediately, creating vastly more agile product development; individual components can be created and assembled at a single station, streamlining supply chains and simplifying workflow.

And gone are the days when Additive Manufacturing was used strictly for plastic materials. New systems are compatible with titanium and various steel alloys, and the list of material options will only grow as the technology gains wider adoption.

In terms of supply chain improvements, Additive Manufacturing’s promise is just as significant.  Component parts and final products can be printed on demand, according to customer needs.  This is sure to mean shortened lead times, reduced need for warehousing, and the ability to dramatically cut costs.

Nike recently announced that it used 3D printing to produce some components of its soccer shoes for the American market. BMW, meanwhile, is using a Stratysys industrial 3D printer to manufacture jigs and fixtures. This shift has enabled the automaker to make deep cuts in both costs and time (58% and 92%, respectively).  General Electric went so far as to acquire a small company for use as a captive supplier; the company will focus on 3D printing of aerospace parts.

The healthcare sector is getting in on the action as well. Dental fixtures, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids have already been made using Additive Manufacturing, and advancing technology is now able to make more complex, finer structures, including functional human tissues for regenerative therapies and research.

At the end of February, DVIRC and our Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program* partner NextFab Studio hosted an event for SMEs interested in learning more about Additive Manufacturing. Our information session was just the beginning in demonstrating the technology’s many market applications.

If you are a manufacturer in Southeastern Pennsylvania and would like to learn more about 3D printing or be kept up-to-date regarding future events on this topic, call or click here today.

*      The Greater Philadelphia Advanced Manufacturing Innovation & Skills Accelerator (Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program) is an industry-driven, integrated partnership that brings together business, technical, financial, and educational assets, both public and private, to grow business value among the region’s manufacturing firms.  The partners are:

  • EEB Hub
  • Ben Franklin Technology Partners Southeastern PA
  • The Collegiate Consortium
  • NextFab Studios
  • Paramount Industries
  • Penn State College of Engineering
  • Philadelphia University
  • Philadelphia Economic Development Corporation
  • Philadelphia Works
  • Select Greater Philadelphia
  • Triumph Engineering Group
  • Urban Industry Initiative
  • Wharton

The Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program is sponsored in part by grants from the following federal agencies:

  • Economic Development Administration
  • Employment and Training Administration
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Department of Energy
  • Small Business Administration