Manufacturing At Crossroads: 3D Printing End User Parts

Guruprasad Rao holds a PhD in Product design from IIT Bombay and has over 30 years of experience in industrial & product design, innovation, design thinking & engineering and many more.

Since the dawn of civilization, mankind has come a long way to adapt to nature. Unlike animals, humans have modified the nature to suit their needs. The process is continuous and ongoing. For the past 100 years or so, the change is rather rapid due to the scale. This was the result of manufacturing revolution, which made making anything in millions, a possibility. Today, we are at the crossroads of manufacturing space. We have handicrafts to digital sculpting on one road and conventional machine tools to digital tools of cyber physical systems on the other. 3D printing was born at this very intersection. The immediate trigger was to make quick prototypes. Three-dimensional models made on a computer could be sent to a system, which fabricates it.

This type of new way of making things was born almost 30 years ago. We can say, such technologies are now mature and are in their prime youth to take-on the real life challenges. Looking back at the history of manufacturing, Industrial revolution is a sudden change from ornamental handcrafted anything to a much simpler geometrical objects made in large numbers. The advent of computing power brought-in another change, the automation. The super computing power coupled with lower cost and high-speed communication has pushed manufacturing to its next big change, namely Industry-4.0. This will herald a regime of extreme agility in manufacturing.

One may wonder, what is so special about this new way of making things? They are special because of their capability to handle extreme geometric complexity. They also offer ultimate agility in the manufacture of making just one product! This has triggered a new way to think & design products. The new way is called as 3D printing, layered fabrication or additive manufacturing. The inventor of the first 3D printing technologies called the process as Stereolithography, which means depth printing.

Unlike normal printers where print table is at constant depth, 3D printers will have the table move up or down to take more layers one above the other to build depth. This way of building objects pushed inventors to creatively think of alternative ways. This resulted in the development of other 3D printing technologies such as SLS, FDM, LOM, MJM, MJF, DLP, DMLS, SLM, EBM and many more to build non-metal & metal objects. This new opportunity triggered the research on materials for the new process. As with any technology, disruptiveness is characterised by its value delivery. Till recently, the 3D printer technologies were best used for prototype development and remained slow and costly.

They were not homogenous and isotropic like their conventional counterparts such as injection moulding and castings. This made 3D printing a weaker technology for mass prodution. There was no economy of scale as we can realise with conventional production processes. The excess cost for 3D printing was tolerated for prototype making, as it played a very important role as a design validation tool. This brought a new kind of stagnation in the growth of 3D printing for bulk production. The limitations such as part size, non-availability of larger material palliate, and low production speed all made it unviable process.

Thinking differently has always brought new solutions. We saw similar with 3D printing technologies too. Digital light processing brought-in speed into 3D printing. Instead of laser running kilometres, the process used light masks or projection of light to cure entire layer at once. This pushed speed to 10X or better. Yet, they are no match to CNC and injection moulding speeds. Getting the speed, quality and cost was a faraway dream. Necessity for faster, better 3D printing led to the invention of new methods such as CLIP, ILI, and MJF. MJF from HP was a clear winner in the game. HP could innovate on the limitations offered by existing 3D printing technologies and come-out with Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), capable of making end user parts.

HP's MJF offers better accuracy at 80 microns build as against standard 100 microns by existing technologies. It is 10 times faster than FDM and overall cost is lower than most technologies clustered to build smart batch runs. Due to the fusion of material, the part is more homogenous and isotropic in comparison to any other technologies. Result, a part as good as an injection-moulded part and ready to face real-life applications.

As though to prove this point, makers of the machine use 50 percent of the HP MJF machine made parts in every system. We were so happy to see this technology keep its promise and got India's first MJF machine. The customers are happy to explore it and build parts to test the capability. Imaginarium's co-creation with some of the OEMs have received very good feedback and surely will trigger wider adoption in the coming years.

The time is ripe to conclude that 3D printing has arrived to make manufacturing at last. And additive manufacturing is here to stay. Are we ready, is the question. We may need to unlearn and relearn a new way to make optimum things in optimum shapes in optimum quantity, triggering a smart manufacturing era.