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How 3D printing is filling out the industrial gaps caused by 2020

As COVID-19 continues its year-long ravage on modern society, an unpalatable fact has been exposed amidst the rubble: Human labor is fragile.

Or rather, its on-site nature is. While the pandemic proved to be an impromptu, prolonged stress test for virtually all types of industries and crafts — forcing every market to adapt to a new reality with varying levels of success — the unprecedented plunge in demand and subsequent recession dealt a particularly hard blow to the manufacturing sector. Assembly lines, after all, can’t work from home.

The sector’s grisly reality was reflected in a March survey by the National Association of Manufacturers, which reported that ~78% of companies expected the coronavirus outbreak to impact their operations financially, with 53% anticipating operational changes. So, between then and now, what palliative measures have equipped the industry to brave this once-in-a-lifetime storm?

Cue 3D printing. For decades, this technology’s economic viability evolved at a snail’s pace before the 2010s ushered in new appreciation for it. But today, in our socially distant world, 3D printing isn’t just increasingly relevant; it has become a beacon of hope for keen-eyed businesses everywhere. Most importantly, it hints at a paradigm change in industrial production that will stay with us permanently after this health crisis clears.

So, let’s have a look at the broad applications of 3D printing and how it empowers manufacturing processes when properly used.

What are the main benefits of 3D Printing?

In the not-so-distant past, 3D printing was seen as clumsy and niche with its expensive hardware and specific operational expertise, but it has since evolved into a $63 billion global market that produces everything from dental crowns to aircraft parts.

Slowly but steadily, companies are wising up to 3D printing’s greatest advantage: Its ability to upend centuries-old economies of scale through additive manufacturing technology. Startups in particular are aware of the gains 3D printing provides, both practical and financial — in 2019, nascent ventures involved with 3D-printed products, or that produce them, received VC investments of over $600 million. But why?

It’s efficient.

The ability to create products out of everything from plastic to titanium, layer over layer instead of “sculpting” them via material subtraction, not only results in less waste and reduced tooling costs, but rather turns the assembly line on its head by deeming it unnecessary. Not constrained to mass-producing the same goods over and over, 3D manufacturers are allowed an unprecedented level of freedom.

It’s customizable.

Mass customization becomes an economically viable option when your products are made out of thin air and a few tweaks on the CAD software. Innovation is also greatly incentivized: a broad range of new designs and shapes is possible thanks to the technology, and so is execution when prototyping costs are negligible between each iteration. That, in turn, diminishes the risks in trying out new products and hastens both concept-to-production and time-to-market goalposts.

It’s automated.

Especially helpful in these strange times, 3D printing has the added benefit of increased industrial automation — printers can run mostly unattended 24/7 — therefore reducing worker density on-site and thus lowering contagion risks. Depending on what is being manufactured, 3D printing may well turn the factory model obsolete.

How are key industries using 3D printing today?

Key industries using 3D printing today

Aerospace

The aerospace industry is well aware of 3D printing capabilities, being a huge beneficiary from it and, over the years, becoming a critical investor and stakeholder in advancing additive manufacturing R&D.

3D printing’s earliest industrial benefits were its functional prototyping production and tooling (or lack thereof); in an industry partly defined by its low-volume production of unique parts, a technology that bypasses expensive tooling while allowing for rapid prototyping — thus faster turnarounds — couldn’t be ignored, even in its infancy.

Furthermore, in practical terms, fuel is the costliest part of an aircraft’s operation: The heavier an airliner is, the more it consumes, on such a scale that a single kilogram reduction represents thousands of dollars saved every year on fuel alone.

By producing complex lightweight parts, 3D printing cuts costs initially as well as over the aircraft’s entire lifespan. Maintenance, another key component of an aircraft’s operating costs, also benefits greatly from 3D printing’s layer-per-layer manufacturing style, enabling localized repairs instead of full equipment replacements.

Automotive

The same cost-effective prototyping and tooling benefits enjoyed by aircraft are also reaped by their cousins on the ground. The automotive industry already has a billionaire share of 3D printing revenues, with an expected increase of 200% in the next five years.

A key difference with cars, however, is how the technology becomes noticeable to the end-user. The customization possibilities of 3D printing allow a vehicle to be personalized to the consumer’s tastes, from ornaments down to custom-made seats that fit the driver’s body, generating a value proposition as unique as each sports car produced.

On the factory side, 3D printing shaves off costs by increasing mass production efficiency: Production lines get optimized; labor and material costs get reduced. Even on-demand manufacturing becomes viable, reining in expensive inventory such as spare parts or collector vehicle replacements.

Medicine

Medicine is where 3D printing goes from being noticeable to the end-user to becoming a literal part of them. Here, the customization potential of additive manufacturing shines its brightest, capitalizing on the uniqueness of each human body to showcase its own resourcefulness and directly improve quality of life.

Dental crowns, as previously mentioned, are a leading example of what is possible in dentistry. A single 3D printer can produce hundreds of custom-made crowns per day, five to eight times more than traditional manufacturing does. Bite splints, bridges, and clear aligners, all of which are hyper-customized products by definition, are created faster and more cost-effectively as well.

Medical implants and prosthetics follow a similar logic. Inherently personal, prosthetics made with 3D printing can be tailor-made down to the millimeter, ensuring a perfect fit for the user. This is especially relevant for kids, who don’t have to fear outgrowing their prosthetic limb since replacement is easily available, and for patients in developing countries with fewer available resources.

In one of the most promising applications of the technology, 3D printers can also “bioprint” — meaning that they produce artificial, organic tissue using living cells as printing material. While a fully-functional, complete organ is still in the science fiction realm (albeit not for long), today these living structures are used to test new drugs.

Lastly, after the COVID pandemic skyrocketed global demand for medical supplies, and it became clear that traditional manufacturing wouldn’t be able to scale up in time, 3D printing stepped in to provide the assist.

Education

3D printing is relevant for students from elementary school up through college. The same way computers, and later the internet, slowly became an inextricable part of daily life, so inevitably will be the mandatory presence of a 3D printer in every school lab.

3D printers demystify the ideation-to-production process, allowing young minds to tap into their ideas and understand how executable they can be. Without the usual — and typically expensive — tooling, prototypes can be created like the drafts they are, enabling students to better learn theory in practice.

In this academic setting, the open-source facet of the technology, with plenty of blueprints freely available online, encourages constant experimentation otherwise restricted to top-level schools only.

Construction

Apart from cost reduction, construction benefits mostly from the versatility of 3D printing. From the different possible materials (metals, concrete, polymers, wax, foam), a plethora of options are available, all of which include big savings on material waste, a key issue in the industry.

The technique can be applied either on-site, with specialized printers doing the concrete heavy lifting, or in a modular fashion, to be assembled as the project demands. Whichever way, construction is also aided by 3D printing on ideation, as scale models can be produced to ramp up speed, integration, and overall project quality.

How have our clients leveraged 3D printing?

iTechArt teamed up with 9T Labs, a carbon fiber printing tech developer, to create software that manages 3D printing processes. Our team came up with a solution engineered to optimize their printing needs through a Wi-Fi connection. AWS IoT was used to set up the printer/server connection, letting users manage the printer's work seamlessly through an enhanced web application. The final result was a fine-tuned 3D file-processing logic that enabled high-speed printing.

The Pediatric HeadShape Clinic creates software for 3D-print custom helmets, designed to correct misalignments in infants’ heads by acting as bracers. As the steps required to construct a custom helmet — creating a 3D head model, correcting all asymmetries, developing the custom model, and finally printing it — are all performed manually, our job was to create a solution that automates the existing process.

***

3D printing has been deemed a revolution by plenty of respected academics and market players. While it hasn’t yet made it into the mainstream in the way more ubiquitous technologies like smartphones have, it is gradually seaming itself into the fabrics of our future.

We should prepare for the impact of its powerful capabilities, ranging from professional to acutely personal, in increasingly tangible ways. And, for those ready to tap into its potential, we can look forward to building upon them even further.

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