Video: What 3D Printing Can & Can't Do

A 3D printer can create parts of virtually any geometry, but engineers need a solid grasp of the technology to make the investment in it worthwhile, experts concluded at a recent industry gathering.

"What you can accomplish is only limited by the designers' creativity, and what they can incorporate into a CAD model," Bryan Dods, manufacturing technology executive for GE Energy, told Design News last week. "But it's not a matter of just putting the model in and having a perfect part come out. There's pre- and post-processing that needs to be done."

Executives at Manufacturing the Future Summit at Stratasys Ltd. told attendees that they've used 3D printing to build parts for generators, agricultural equipment, medical systems, and myriad other applications. They agreed that the niche for the technology is broader than many engineers believe, but not as all-encompassing as popular culture often depicts.

Over the past few years, they said, 3D printing has grown fast. Industry analyst Wohlers Associates told attendees that it expects the market for 3D printers to jump from $2 billion today to $6 billion in 2017 to $10.8 billion in 2021. The technology, which enables printers to make three-dimensional solid objects from digital models, has captured the imaginations of manufacturing engineers, as well as hobbyists, said Wohlers consultant Tim Caffrey.

Experts at the gathering emphasized that production volumes for 3D printed parts are small, but added that manufacturing firms are nevertheless taking a growing interest in the technology. Printed parts enable engineers to eliminate long waits for tooling, while speeding test and development in specific applications, they said.

"Our 3D printer was installed in June of 2012," noted Allan Cronen, president and CEO of GVL Poly, which makes plastic parts for agricultural machinery. "The machine has been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week since then, other than when we started and stopped between jobs."

Cronen told Design News that his company employs a Stratasys Fortus 900mc 3D printer as an alternative to rotational molding to build polyethylene "corn heads" for agricultural machines, but only in very specific applications. The company has benefited in two key ways: 3D printing allows engineers to quickly make and test small design changes, while eliminating the 16 to 20 week wait that would otherwise be needed for production tooling, Cronen said.

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