In its early days of adoption, 3D printing was used by hobbyists to print models of art and figurines, or by manufacturers for prototyping. However, the technology has come a long way since then. Today, 3D printing can be used for producing end-use parts for various industries, including the Aerospace, Automotive, Medical, Consumer Goods, Jewelry industry.
The aerospace industry was one of the first large industries to invest in 3D printing technology. Additive Manufacturing has been used in aerospace since as early as the 1980’s. The technology offers an obvious advantage in the industry, as it is able to produce parts that are more resilient and lightweight compared to those manufactured using traditional methods.
EOS, one of the leaders in industrial 3D printing of metals and polymers, states that additive manufacturing can produce weight reductions of between 40-60%. To put this in perspective, the average corporate aircraft travels 75,000 miles per month. A single component that is designed and manufactured with 3D printing reduces air drag by 2.1%, which in turn reduces fuel costs by 5.41%.
Due to its cost-saving and environmental benefits, 3D printing is used in aerospace to produce:
- Jigs & fixtures
- Surrogates (the placeholder parts that are used during production or training to represent components that are later installed in final assemblies)
- Mounting brackets
Previously, 3D printing was only used for prototyping in the automotive industry to check their form and fit. 2013 marked an important moment in 3D printing history as the first 3D printed car Urbee was produced! Since the invention of Urbee, vehicle manufacturers have realised that the technology can be used to do much more than prototyping, including concept models, pre-production sampling and tooling, as well as customized parts.
Many car manufacturers have adopted additive manufacturing in their production cycle. For example, German luxury automaker Audi, launched a 3D printing center in Ingolstadt. They are currently working with the SLM Solutions Group AG, who specialize in metal additive manufacturing, to produce prototypes and spare parts. This development means that their new process can not only build complex or rare parts at an extremely low cost, but the 3D printing process affords greater design freedom if a design component is meant to handle multiple functions in a vehicle, such as cooling or current.
In the medical field, Additive Manufacturing has four main applications. They are:
- Creating tissues and organoids
- Surgical tools
- Patient-specific surgical models
- Custom-made prosthetics
Other than these uses, the technology has stepped up in the medical industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented crisis has caused many countries to plunge into a lack of medical supplies. Due to its additive nature, 3D printing has been able to facilitate a swift response in emergencies. During the pandemic, additive manufacturing is used for producing medical supplies such as medical devices, personal protective equipment (PPE) and more.
Photo by Choong, Y.Y.C., Tan, H.W., Patel, D.C. et al. The global rise of 3D printing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Rev Mater (2020).
4. Consumer Goods
In the consumer goods industry, 3D printing is ideal for prototypes and concept models. The technology reduces time to market and allows designers to have a good idea of how their product will look like before sending it in for mass production. Full colour 3D printers are commonly used in this industry to create visually appealing products. In particular, Additive Manufacturing has been widely adopted for prototyping sporting goods, consumer electronics and toys.
In recent years, 3D printing has become an asset to jewelry production. 3D printing is now used to simplify the production cycle by creating patterns for investment casting and printing jewelry directly.
CAD design of jewelry enables the creation of consistent, symmetrical pieces without the tediousness and variability of wax carving. Using 3D printed investment casting patterns means manufacturers can reduce risk of mistakes which require costly design iterations. Many manufacturers use SLA casting patterns for prototyping prior to going into full, traditionally-based investment casting because of the low cost. However, SLA patterns can and are increasingly used as full production patterns too.
Due to its additive nature, jewelry designs can have more complex geometries compared to those created using tooling. Furthermore, the product can be lighter weight yet more functional. Multiple designs can also be printed in the same batch, making it ideal for low volume production. This is especially useful in terms of jewelry as many designs are customised and customers only want one piece.