3-D printing isn't a must-have tool for metal fabricators—at least not yet. But the technology is advancing at great speeds. It's time to start paying attention.
Until recently, when someone mentioned 3-D printing, the only thought I could muster was of “The Big Bang Theory” episode in which Howard Wolowitz purchases an expensive 3-D printer for the No. 1 purpose of making a lifelike action figure of himself. He loved the action figure. His wife, Bernadette, hated the price tag of the 3-D printer and made him return it.
The 3-D printer revolution: It’s made its way into popular culture—but only as a comedic prop. But maybe that’s a sign of just how strong the hype over the technology has grown.
It’s definitely gotten the attention of the metal fabricating base. In The FABRICATOR’s June 2014 Industry Research Project, “The Present and Future of Metal Fabrication,” 33 percent of the 216 survey respondents indicated that 3-D printing/additive manufacturing represents the most exciting aspect of the metal fabricating profession in the future, ahead of design and engineering tools (30 percent) and laser technology (16 percent). If that same question were posed to fabricators at the end of 2014, I’m sure more of them would share the same opinion. It looks like 3-D printing is about to go mainstream.
This is no overnight sensation, however. Additive manufacturing, a more traditional term for 3-D printing, dates back to the 1980s. It involves any sort of additive process in which layer upon layer of material is automatically placed in a horizontal fashion and solidified before the next layer is applied, ultimately creating a 3-D object that once began as a design file. Veterans of the metal fabricating industry might be familiar with expensive electron beam and laser additive processes used for special applications. The technology was around, but hardly ubiquitous.
That’s not the case anymore. 3-D printing equipment now can be purchased for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. A man can get his action figure, and his wife doesn’t have to fret about family finances.
Some might argue that the 3-D printing boom for the masses came with the expiration of early 3-D printing patents. The expiration of many more, such as selective laser sintering technology, offers up the possibility that more innovation and competition may be on the way.
Of course, metal fabricators aren’t interested in one-off production of plastic parts such as hole coverings for finishing or tube end caps for safety purposes. These are commodities. It’s still a lot easier to institute good kanban practices to keep inventory at acceptable levels rather than have a technician wander over to a 3-D printer and initiate a long production program for just one item.
Fabricators want metal parts, and they want them fast. Apparently the technology is moving quickly to make that possible.
“The speed capability of AM [additive manufacturing] is double about every 18 months. You don’t have to look too far into the future to see a vastly different and enhanced manufacturing reality,” wrote Reid Leland, president of LeanWerks and technology team leader for the National Tooling & Machining Association, in the association’s July 2014 publication The Record.
GE Aviation is fully committed to 3-D printing, especially for its next-generation LEAP engines, which won’t be in service until 2016 on the Airbus A320neo. Each engine has 19 3-D-printed nozzles that originally started as a superalloy dust. By printing each nozzle, GE Aviation engineers were able to produce a simpler design that called for just five brazes and welds, not the 25 required for the original nozzle design. The company estimates that the 3-D-printed nozzle is five times more durable than the model it will replace.
GE is so committed to the technology that it will begin using it in the company’s power and water division, its largest industrial business unit. The technology also will be a centerpiece at GE’s Advanced Manufacturing Works opening in Greenville, S.C., in 2015.
Now, fab shops don’t have the deep pockets that GE has, but they do have the experience to know that technology developments occur quickly in industry today. What was once the technology differentiator for a major multinational company can quickly become a competitive advantage for a job shop in a few short years.
It was only about 10 years ago when robotic welding cells were only for large OEMs producing thousands of the same part. Today many shops have some sort of automated welding capability. Just four years ago the fiber laser cutter made a big splash in the metal fabricating industry, and now the technology is finding widespread acceptance. If the price is right and the technology remedies a production problem, metal fabricators will show interest.
High-speed 3-D printing of metal parts is not quite to the point of being a commercially viable manufacturing tool for general fabricating operations, but it’s getting closer. The ability to produce a chrome action figure replica of yourself is just around the corner.