78RPM, thanks for your comments and the info on ExOne--we did write about them and what they're doing with metals and other materials: http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=252293 But we like to hear about new players in this widening industry.
Having been involved with rapid prototyping since the mid-late 90's and in the plastics industry for longer, I understand what you are saying. Will AM replace high volume production? I can't say that is will. I do believe that with the improvements in the available materials, accuracy of the machines, and their increased capabilities, I can see AM having a significant impact on low volume or quick turn parts. If I can get 10-20 or even 100 parts that will perform as needed in the same time it would take to build a mold, it becomes the obvious choice. Companies like Invisa-Line creating custom orthodontics, or Rausch making custom 1-off racing parts is where this technology is already transforming manufacturing. I see this growing and becoming more wide spread as time goes on. As more become aware of the capabilities, as well as understanding the limits, parts can be designed accordingly. Think of the metal to plastics conversion. The designs had to change to account for different properties, and as people became more educated accordingly, other features not possible in metal were added. Assemblies can be simplified by designing the molded parts differently. If the same approach it taken with AM, I think the sky is the limit.
Ann, the biggest hurdle to 3D printing ever catching and surpassing conventional molding is the high-volume throughput capability of injection molding. Typical molded parts (components of super high volume products like iPhones) are injection-molded in about 20 seconds -- usually with multiple cavities – so routine production yields 3 parts/minute per cavity.
So, accepting that AM methods will never be able (did I say never-?) to reach this "run-rate", then the logical application of the 3D methods is to print the tooling; not the parts.
Even after great strides have been made in slashing tooling lead-times over the past 15 years, tool-makers lead-times are still measured in "weeks" (4-6 is average) for conventional mold tools. Imagine if toolmakers simply printed the mold base using an advanced SLS method for metals; a mold base typically taking 2 weeks to complete could be measured in hours.
Accordingly, my vision of the3DP & AM industry points at tooling -- I just cannot imagine the part processing ever matching market demand.
As you probably know and may have written about already, a company called ExOne recently had its IPO. Their printers can print in brass, stainless steel and sand. They can print pretty large objects. Their website says the Navy uses the printers to print out-of-production parts for old ships. The process is far cheaper than going out to bid for someone to make them.
Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. I've been writing about this space for awhile, but was surprised at what a small proportion of the market comprises consumer applications right now. Those are what's getting all the media attention from the non-technical press, since they've got the sci-fi magic-like appeal of "instantly" creating something.
Interesting report, Ann. I am not surprised that the consumer space will only be a small portion of the market growth, and that prototyping and small-volume manufacturing will contribute to most of it. But I think a lot of people who don't follow the industry might not realize this because, as you said, consumer products get a lot of play (and of course, are sexier to the general public than manufacturer's use of 3D printing). But all in all, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
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