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3D printing is here to stay

3D printing has been hailed as a game changer that can potentially transform small businesses and corporations and empower individuals. Envisioned as a fast way to print even the most intricate things, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, had its start in the 1980s when Chuck Hull printed a cup. 3D-printed things are formed from a digital file and a printer that adds layers of material to complete the object. Each layer is a thin sliced cross-section of the actual object. 3D printing uses less material than conventional manufacturing. Materials used in 3D printing are mostly thermoplastics, a type of plastic that becomes liquid when heated but will solidify when cool. However, researchers are working on new materials that can be used for 3D printing.

“The adoption of additive manufacturing is nascent though. Several industries, including manufacturing, automotive, jewellery, medicine, fashion, healthcare, consumer goods and defence can benefit from 3D printing technology,” says Arvind Nadig of Brahma3, a Bengaluru-based desktop 3D printing company. Automakers, for instance, are betting big time on this futuristic technology. They are hoping to eventually manufacture spare parts thus reduce costs and speed up production. Additive manufacturing can save costs in terms of material, labour and transportation as compared with traditional subtractive manufacturing. Automakers such as Tata Motors and Maruti Suzuki are riding the 3D printing wave for prototyping car models. They hope to eventually utilise it for manufacturing.

Given the fast proliferation of the technology and its new uses, experts foresee it won't be long before it is common in our homes. According to the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the top technologies that have the maximum potential for revolutionising the technology landscape of manufacturing is additive manufacturing. The growing need for product customisation, difficulties in creating complex shapes using traditional manufacturing techniques, rapid prototyping and parts replacement are driving the adoption of additive manufacturing. Although this is not a new technology, it was never considered for serious mainstream production other than prototyping earlier, says the PwC report. Today, with the falling cost of 3D printers and advancement in 3D printing technologies, additive manufacturing is set to become one of the leading technologies used by manufacturing companies in the future. In the global scenario, there is a surge in the adoption of 3D printers.

When the first 3D printed gun was fired in 2013, the blueprints were posted online for free access. They were immediately taken down as per the order of the US government, but by then it was downloaded nearly 100,000 times. Guns are subject to strict controls in many countries, as are human body parts. The same applies to manufactured items, which must meet standards. The makers of these items are normally regulated. The companies and industries are inspected and the products they produce are subject to certification that they are of the right standard. But the million dollar question though is: how can a technology that you can use to manufacture in the privacy of your home be controlled?

Wohlers Report 2018 reveals a noteworthy boost in metal additive manufacturing this year. According to the report, an estimated 1,768 metal additive manufacturing systems were sold in 2017, compared with 983 systems in 2016, an increase of nearly 80 per cent. This dramatic rise in metal 3D printing system installations accompanies improved process monitoring and quality assurance measures.

The Indian 3D printing market is growing rapidly and is estimated to reach over $79 million dollars by 2021 according to 6W Research. Though manufacturing and automotive are the large users of 3D printing currently, architecture, medical and education are catching up fast and are all set to propel the market.

Adoption of 3D printers

The term 3D printing encompasses over a dozen different processes that allow for the creation of physical objects from digital designs. Each process has its strengths and weaknesses and, depending on the need of the industry, there are machines that can make simple prototypes all the way up to end usable parts in materials such as plastics, resins, wax, metals and composites.

“3D printers are a common sight across the research and development centres and even production facilities of most automotive, engineering, FMCG, jewellery and other product-led companies,” says Tanmay Shah, Innovations-Leadership team, at Imaginarium, a 3D printingand rapid prototyping company. In India, the technology has definitely crossed the awareness stage, with several large business groups investing in 3D printers and related fields, and the smaller companies are all seeking out partners who can help them understand the possibilities and implications better, adds Shah.

About three to four years ago, enterprises were quite sceptical about 3D printing as it was new, especially in India. But the level of adoption is growing rapidly now with more awareness and opportunities that the technology is providing them. “We have seen a tremendous rise in the use of 3D printing by SMEs. With FDM 3D printing becoming affordable and, most importantly, efficient, SMEs are rapidly prototyping their requirements faster and cheaper when compared to conventional methods like casting,” says Vijay Srinivas, digital marketer at 3Ding, a Benguluru-based 3D printing services company.

Short for fused deposition modelling, FDM printers use a thermoplastic filament, which is heated to its melting point and then extruded, layer by layer, to create three-dimensional objects.


Tech innovations

The world’s lightest satellite that was set to be launched into space by NASA on August 2018, was 3D printed in nylon using a FabX 3D printer by a group of students from Hindustan University in Chennai. The launch has been delayed till next week due to unfavourable weather conditions.

Some of the most far-fetched uses for 3D printing are emerging within the medical field. 3Dprinting can make helpful visualisation aids for surgeries, saving time and money in the process. “The technology offers numerous benefits, including better surgical preparation, significant reduction of surgical costs and more opportunities for better patient education,” said Gaurav Loyalka, co-founder Novabeans, a Gurugram-based 3D printing services company.

Prosthetics and orthotics clinics, which once used conventional plaster casts – which usually take between one and two weeks to deliver – have replaced them with 3D printing techniques for custom-made devices that can be delivered within one day. 3D printed prosthetic limbs are used in hospitals and clinics.

Creating patient-specific models from CT and MRI scans expand from medical research into practical application with the ability to prepare doctors for surgeries, thus drastically reducing surgery times. Taking this further, there are several examples of medical scan data to 3D print implants specific to a patient. So far, an entire organ has not yet been successfully printed for surgical use; however, scientists have successfully printed kidney cells, sheets of cardiac tissue that beat like an actual heart among many other organ tissues.

“Hybrid manufacturing is an extremely promising innovation in 3D printing. It refers to the simultaneous capability of a machine to create objects using additive as well as subtractive processes,” says Shah of Imaginarium. This is one of the best ways to overcome the limitations of manufacturing processes and make the most of the strengths of both.

Metal 3D printing is one of the most exciting areas in this space. The ability to print in materials such as steel, aluminium, cobalt chrome, gold, silver and many others (including alloys) implies that completely end-usable products that are optimised and redesigned for 3D Printing will revolutionise industries and manufacturing companies sooner than we can imagine. The constraints of traditional mass manufacturing led to the creation of products with a large number of components that were then assembled together – adding to the weight, reducing performance and increasing costs. With 3D printing, optimised and integrated parts can be designed and printed in a single go, thereby creating a new class of products and a new school of design that can leverage additive manufacturing to the fullest.

“With the core 3D printing technology becoming more and more efficient, technologies like bioprinting (living cells are arranged or 3D printed to create an organ or part of an organ) and3D concrete printing are being experimented widely,” says Srinivas of 3Ding. For instance, recently, scientists have 3D printed cancer cells for their research. Also it is possible to 3D print cornea to provide perfect vision.

Innovations around 3D printing is also happening in construction industries. In the construction phase, 3D concrete printing has enabled builders to build houses in a matter of two days which generally took three months. 3D printed bridges are already coming up in Europe. The Nederlands has also completed its first habitable 3D printed house which will soon be open for use. Countries like China, Dubai and the United States of America are looking forward to use this technology for building infrastructure like houses, settlements in war zones as well as creating colonies on Mars.

“Rather than disrupt or substitute traditional manufacturing, my view is that 3D printing could be a perfect complement to all existing forms of productions. It opens up new avenues along the product development lifecycle – shortening the time to prototype, allowing complex designs that were hitherto unmanufacturable, making customised products a reality in both industrial and consumer settings, and eventually leading to a new hybrid manufacturing paradigm that fits well within the industry 4.0 future that we are moving towards,” says Shah of Imaginarium.

Shah believes 3D printing by large will assist conventional manufacturing rather than affect it.3D printing is largely used for rapid prototyping and, at the end of the day, people use conventional manufacturing to get their end product. One way 3D printing will affect conventional manufacturing is when the technology has matured enough that it makes economies of scale redundant enabling economies of scope. When 3D printing becomes more widely used and turns into an utility like internet, we will see the transition of manufacturing from massive factories to mini-factories. Mass production will be phased out by mass customisation where everyone will have access to customise and create however they want. But we have at least 20 years before the reality takes shape, adds Shah.


The ecosystem design

With every new orbital shift in technology, there ensues a trail of hotly contested debates regarding the potential risks and upsides as well as its implications for society. 3D printing is one of the latest technologies to have joined the club, says Shah. “I believe it is no longer a question of whether digital designs should be made available online or not. Rather, we must discuss what systems, processes, regulations and infrastructure can be created in order to ensure only positive uses of this technology, argues Shah. The recent fracas around the availability of 3D printable gun design in the US served as a serious wakeup call to all within and outside the industry. One cannot ignore the implications that such applications might have. It might be impossible, even unfortunate, to ban all kinds of designs to be shared online due to these dreadful possibilities. Fortunately though, the technology has benefitted many as well. Take for example the e-Nable project that is making designs for 3D printable prosthetic limbs freely available online for anyone to download, modify and print, at a fraction of the cost of traditional prosthetics.

When asked whether the 3D printing designs should be freely available online, Srinivas of3Ding says “I believe it is entirely up to the creator of the design to make it freely available or not. We have to see this from a software point of view. Many software companies keep mission-critical code secured to prevent damages to their company or products. Similarly, companies will be looking to keep their mission-critical digital models secure from competitors and hackers due to business and safety concerns.” In some areas, the government will intervene as 3D printers are capable of printing arms, as was the case with the USA.


Can SMEs afford the technology?

The ability to exploit additive manufacturing to create more efficient and more affordable stuff no longer warrants a hefty investment. The revolutionary technology is well within the means of small and medium businesses across the country. Additive manufacturing offers numerous advantages and SMEs are likely to benefit from this method. But the problem is that SMEs lack the required financial support. If programmes can be initiated to make this technology more affordable to them, then SMEs will be able to make the most of 3D printing, says the PwC report.

“While good industrial grade 3D printers are still extremely expensive and SMEs are not considering buying those in-house, the presence of service bureaus like Imaginarium are making the technology accessible and affordable to all those who require it,” says Shah. Everyone – from school children to entrepreneurs to large MNCs – is now able to find a suitable partner who can go from design to end product in a matter of days. “We have invested in the entire spectrum of additive as well as subtractive manufacturing capabilities so that the smaller companies do not have to break their banks doing the same," Shah adds.

Srinivas says, “One of the core value of our company stems from making 3D printing affordable and effective for India. Our first version of FabX 3D printer was the world’s most affordable 3Dprinter when it launched. Since then we have come up with various models which cater to SMEs and are built for industrial usage.”