There tends to be some confusion when it comes to additive manufacturing, despite how much promise the technique holds. Most people are familiar with its consumer counterpart, which is known more commonly as 3D printing. Some mistakenly assume that 3D printing is limited to the consumer product realm, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, 3D printing is poised to have serious implications for the entire manufacturing industry. Staff writers at The Economist have already suggested that 3D printers will change manufacturing in big ways. At the time of the writing of the piece, the authors openly addressed the skeptics who considered 3D printing nothing more than a passing fad.
Fortunately, evidence indicates that 3D printing is being adopted by some of the most recognizable brands in the world. Major companies wouldn’t be investing in the technology without reasonable confidence that it would yield favorable outcomes. Martin LaMonica at MIT Technology Review reported that General Electric (GE) authorized its aviation division to use 3D printing to produce a fuel nozzle for a brand-new aircraft engine. The metal fuel nozzles are typically cast and welded, but technicians at GE were convinced that 3D printing would prove to be a superior method.
The implications of having GE transition to 3D printing are difficult to overstate. Rajiv Rao at TechRepublic considers the move revolutionary and expects the technology to continue evolving and improving relentlessly. Tomas Kellner, one of GE’s senior-most leaders, shared his own thoughts about how 3D printing will upend manufacturing. He explains that “jet engines are large and complicated machines … but sometimes surprisingly small parts can make a big difference in how they work.” That’s probably an understatement but the insinuation is clear. Unfortunately, creating intricate components with industrial materials isn’t so easily accomplished by traditional means.
3D printing excels where more traditional methods have proven unreliable or less efficient than desired. Jason Pontin at Wired couldn’t agree more — he even went so far as to declare 3D printing the future of factories. According to him, the benefits of 3D printing far outweigh the costs. He also argues that advancements in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software will continue to drive further improvements to 3D printing.
Analysts at Deloitte predicted that capital investments in 3D printing will exceed a staggering 5.2 billion US dollars by 2020. That isn’t chump change by any means. Companies clearly see enough value in the emerging technology to warrant significant investments. That being said, industrial 3D printing isn’t reserved exclusively for global brands. Startups and small businesses can tap into 3d printing services rather than foot the overhead necessary to acquire their own equipment. That also spares them from having to master the technology, so they can focus their attention on relevant production decisions.
Despite all the presented evidence, some skeptics still remain unconvinced that 3D printing holds real promise. Forbes contributor Jim Miller does an excellent job of describing the hype and hope related to 3D printing. He suspects that there are several important trends to watch closely. Key highlights include digitization, Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing. All three already have sincere implications of their own. One can explore more concrete examples thanks to Avi Reichental at Fortune, who makes a point of promoting how 3D printing is helping us fight global climate change. That should appeal to almost everyone and especially to ardent environmentalists.
This isn’t to say that 3D printing is some technological panacea but rather to underscore possibilities it creates. Confusion and skepticism aside, there are countless reasons to consider 3D printing as a hobby or profession.