3D printers move beyond the hype and into mainstream manufacturing

Curiosity about and investment in 3D printing just keeps increasing, but what can you gain from bringing the technology into your business’s operation? Brent Balinski spoke to Stratasys and one of the market leading company’s local re-sellers about the technology.

Huge growth

Business is booming for the US- and Israel-based Stratasys, according to the leading 3D printing and additive manufacturing company, who recently predicted sales growth of at least 25 per cent for the year. In 2013, the company also acquired the consumer 3D printing firm MakerBot, and saw out the first full year after its completed merger with Objet.
The pace in this region is outstripping all the others for Stratasys, ahead of India, the USA and Latin America.
“In terms of growth, APJ presented the strongest for 2013,” Jonathan Jaglom, general manager for Asia Pacific and Japan since the beginning of last year, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“The big players in Asia of course first and foremost remains Japan, second is China, third is Korea and then the rest of the region and the rest [countries] of the region are pretty much even in weight, with Australia being one of those.” stratasys-image1-from-3dprinterclassifieds-com.jpg

What’s behind the demand?

In Australia, as with Asia and the rest of the world, there are four main fundamentals driving the rapid growth in investment, according to Stratasys: compression of time to market, the cost of error, creativity, and confidentiality concerns.
With a suitable 3D printer, the need to create a prototype via milling or by hand no longer exists.
“Today you can generate prototypes directly through a 3D printer from a 3D CAD software environment,” explained Jaglom.
What a manufacturer hopes to accomplish through a prototype is important; concept modelling for mainly visual purposes is different to testing for fit and assembly or functional testing.
“Functional testing is split around two parts that are basic functional testing: dry runs of the product and its environment and also testing parts in harsh environment,” he explained, adding that being able to produce a prototype out of the right material is a requirement those in the market for a machine will need to consider.
“Of course if your end product is polycarbonate and you’re testing on a material which is inferior to polycarbonate then your drop test analysis is of little value to you,” he said.
Being able to spot errors in design earlier can mean an earlier correction and thus less time wasted later.
The third factor driving investment – creativity – is harder to measure, concedes Jaglom, but being able to prototype more quickly and at a lower cost to re-design will allow a team to try out more of their ideas in less time.
Finally, confidentiality concerns mean that a reason to consider purchasing a 3D printer might have something to do with hesitation around sharing CAD files and concepts with a third party.

Comparing hype with reality

For Stratasys and other companies offering 3D printing solutions, one of the biggest challenges is educating the potential market about what practical gains can be achieved by the capital expense. Another is matching technology with expectations. Along with huge growth, there is a lot of hype and what sometimes seems like a rush by the media to cover every novelty involving 3D printing regardless of its usefulness (see this PC World slideshow for some recent silly examples).
The real-world value of having 3D printers or production systems (see this white paper for an explanation of the difference) in a workplace is best decided on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it means overcoming the hype.
“3D printing is magical, it’s fantastic, but it has its limitations,” explained Dominic Parsonson, product manager at Tasman Machinery, one of Australia’s two Stratasys re-sellers. “It’s a production process like any other production process.
“The first stage of going through when someone approaches us is to determine their understanding of 3D printing. Where does he think he wants to implement it, what are his expectations for a part: is he prototyping for look and feel, is he looking at functional applications, or is he looking at production?
“So the key issue is first understanding what he expects from a [printed] part.”
Parsonson explained that a printer is another tool in the workshop, like an injection moulder or a CNC machine, and will be useful in some cases and not in others.

What uses?

According to Stratasys, there are four main uses for their technology, in creating concept models and functional prototypes, as well as manufacturing tools such as jigs and fixtures, and finally end-use products.
For a company that’s outsourcing its 3D printing needs, Parsonson says choosing to own their own machine or machines can be the result of simply doing the maths and seeing how the cost of ownership stacks up against using a bureau. Stratasys-callipers-stratasys-com.pngThe more use the investment gets, the more value it adds to a company, believes Tasman Machinery.
“You’ll find that a good company with 3D printing will have their production engineers, their design team, their maintenance team and a variety of teams within the company exposed to 3D printing,” said Parsonson, who adds that the value goes way beyond just prototypes.
“The production guys will say ‘we could do some low volume parts on this instead of outsourcing’, and the maintenance guy might think ‘we’re running some old machines, we need some bits and bobs we can no longer source’ and then get it.
“Assembly teams might say ‘we can produce customised jigs and fixtures which can improve our assembly times in production.’ So the second you have a 3D printer in-house, its value across the whole scope of the organisation increases, from design, prototyping, assembly, production and maintenance.”

Is Australia lagging behind the rest of the region?

For Stratasys, the biggest challenge is educating those who might benefit from 3D printing or additive manufacturing, through efforts including its marketing, consulting directly with customers, and through efforts such as putting in appearances at trade shows.
Jaglom, a keynote speaker at the Singapore Inside 3D Printing Conference, said that the company will have a presence at the Melbourne leg of the series in July. It will also feature as the exclusive sponsor of National Manufacturing Week’s new Additive Manufacturing zone.
Part of the effort to address the curiosity around 3D printing, Stratasys tries to partner with various governments to put forward its technology.
According to Jaglom, Australia is lagging its regional neighbours badly when it comes to promoting and helping make available 3D printing to those who could be transforming their businesses with it.
“I can tell you that I’m actively pursuing discussions with the Chinese government, the Japanese government, the Korean government, the Singaporean government,” explained Jaglom.
“I have to admit that in Australia we have not had that sort of discussion.” Jaglom is critical what he sees as the country’s lack of effort in encouraging industry, comparing Australia poorly with the enthusiasm shown by countries such as the US and China for advanced manufacturing hubs.
Compare the situation in Australia with, say, Singapore, whose government announced last year it would invest $500 million over five years in advanced manufacturing, including additive manufacturing, to boost its industrial competitiveness.
According to Jaglom, there’s no such enthusiasm here.
“We’d be very happy to have discussions of that nature with – or any other response – that the Australian government might have; to have those discussions," he said.
“Maybe they’re talking to someone else, another 3D printing player, and I’m just not aware of it.
“As far as we can tell, it hasn’t yet started. And we’d be delighted to initiate that.”
 
NB: Though many use the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing interchangeably and as blanket terms for the entire technology, Stratasys often makes a distinction between the two. 3D printing – though it is the same as additive manufacturing – is typically associated with personalised production on more basic, compact machines, and additive manufacturing with using more complex, more versatile (and expensive) 3D production systems, typically associated with supply chains.

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