28 March 2019
3D Printing Technology Boldly Going Beyond Prototyping Pigeonhole
- Photo: 3D printing: Still preeminent for prototyping, but now making its mark in manufacturing. (Shutterstock.com)
- Photo: Dynamism’s MakerBot Replicator.
- Photo: Rapid circuit board turnaround from Tempo.
- Photo: The Minneapolis Design and Manufacturing Show: The Midwest’s largest industrial conceptual event.
Industry now accepts that 3D printers are capable of more than churning out prototypes, according to exhibitors at the Minneapolis Design and Manufacturing Show, with the latest systems capable of delivering exact, durable components.
Nowadays, 3D printers are a common sight at many industrially-minded expos, with the Minneapolis Design and Manufacturing Show no exception. Recently, though, the excitement around the technology has built, with the latest generation of machines allowing industrial customers to use 3D printing in new ways, moving it well beyond its current prototype-rendering pigeonhole.
One exhibitor who clearly believed the perceptions of many industrial users were undergoing something of a step-change was Andy Goeke, Business Development Director of Dynamism Inc, a Chicago-based 3D printer distributor.
Outlining his expectations of the changed landscape, he said: "While prototyping is still one of the strengths of 3D technology, it is no longer exclusively the case. We are now seeing 3D printing moving into more of a production and use role, particularly with regard to smaller-run parts and things like bespoke components or things that have surface features – such as text – that have to be customised.
"Another upcoming area is any application that requires adherence to very specific dimensions, such as in the medical field where we can now get very, very accurate scans of an individual's body. As related items need to be tailor-made for that particular individual, it's very easy, in such instances, to shift from design to physical object."
Another to see customer expectations of 3D printing widening and deepening was Charlie Seitzer, Sales Manager for Hawk Ridge Systems, a California-based supplier of 3D design, manufacturing and printing services. Assessing the change, he said: "When it comes to 3D printing, the consumer base is far more educated – they now have far more in their heads before I even talk to them.
"While their needs aren't really changing much, their idea of the capabilities of 3D-printing systems is much further along than it was several years back. Now they're actually using the technology on an everyday basis. It's no longer just all about fit and function prototypes."
As the market is getting more sophisticated, it also seems to be getting increasingly segmented. Highlighting the ways different 3D printer brands are gaining a reputation for particular applications, Seitzer said: "When you look at our portfolio, HP is more for production, Mark Forge is being used in the manufacturing sector for jigs and fixtures, while Union Tech, with its strengths in serial lithography, is being deployed more for prototyping, as well as for some more functional pieces."
According to many exhibitors, as the typical 3D printer has grown in size and its use has graduated from disposable prototyping into finished, durable production parts, the need for accuracy and dependability has increased exponentially. Picking up on this particular development, Goeke said: "Many of the latest 3D desktop printers are now on their fourth or fifth generation, so they've improved significantly in terms of technology and that's made a huge difference to their reliability.
"It goes without saying that that's a good thing – when you're getting to bigger sizes, you need to make sure that your printing process is well under control. You also need to be confident in terms of consistency, largely because prints tend to take longer the larger they get."
Shortening product development time – an area that 3D-printed prototypes have long played a key role in – was another common topic of debate among exhibitors. Representing the views of many, Malcolm Knapp, Product Marketing Manager for Tempo Automation, a San Francisco-based automation software developer, said: "We're focused on quick turnaround, full turnkey prototyping and production. Our whole ethos is about engineers getting their circuit boards back quickly and seamlessly.
"It starts with our online portal, which allows users to upload their CAD, upload their board and get real-time checks to ascertain whether their design is ready to go for manufacture. They therefore get to move a lot of processes off the critical path to avoid delaying builds."
While speed is essential in the majority of industries, certain sectors have proved to be more suitable than others for Tempo's fast turnaround approach. Expanding upon this, Knapp said: "We deal with a lot of new aerospace customers who need to get flight-rated boards going up in satellites four or five times faster than they did before. While previously it was five-year cycles, now it is 18 months to get a whole new design ready to go.
"We're also working with automotive customers, high-technology customers, and medical customers. All of these people require the kind of urgency we're geared up to deliver."
While cost-reductions and speed to market are among the obvious benefits of shorter product development cycles, faster turnaround can also bring wider-reaching benefits for development engineers, freeing them from the need to 'play it safe' in order to hit a deadline, at least according to Christine Pearsall, Tempo's Senior Director of Sales and Marketing Operations.
Outlining how this works in practice, she said: "If I'm an engineer and I've got this aggressive deadline, I have to do something that I know 100% will work – if I get a bit experimental, I'm not going to make that deadline. This kind of thinking, though, clearly hinders innovation.
"If that engineer, though, was working with the kind of partner that could provide rapid and reliable turnaround of prototypes, it means that, whereas before they could get one iteration before the deadline, maybe they can now get three or four. This would free them up to be more innovative and experimental and allow them to push the boundaries a bit more."
One of the more unusual exhibits at the event came courtesy of New Vision, a Minnesota-based specialist in all things Augmented Reality (AR) and Internet of Things (IoT) related. Perhaps intended to capture the imagination of fellow exhibitors as much as visitors, the company had on offer an AR system designed to showcase industrial products.
Explaining the exact application of the system, Mark Torguson, the company's Vice-president for Marketing, said: "Businesses manufacture different products, they have different configurations and they can't bring them all to a trade show, even if they want to show their whole range to prospective clients. So, we create an AR showcase for them and their customers can then experience their whole portfolio regardless of location.
"This clearly saves them a lot of money on the prototyping side. Beyond that, though, it also has financial advantages in terms of shipping, while also simplifying logistics arrangements."
The 2018 Design and Manufacturing Show took place from 31 October-1 November at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Minneapolis