It’s happened to all of us who have interacted with a 3D printer. It is very exciting, you know you want one, but who feeds the 3D printer? It does not work without human input.
I just had the chance to watch the Mad Men episode where they installed the "computer", replacing the creative lounge with a huge new “machine” destined to solve all the agencies problems.
I can't help but think that mechanical engineers are thinking the same way about additive manufacturing (AM). However, engineers need not fear replacement by a 3D printer any time soon. Human brains are still a crucial element to high quality, innovative products.
Breaking down the excitement into pros and cons lends some perspective to why AM is taking over the minds of strategic engineering managers, and pushing process and software tool improvement to small and large organizations alike (towards Model-Based Engineering practices, I might add).
Here is what I see as the most common obstacles and benefits when folks get excited about the onslaught of 3D printing.
Issues to be aware of when you’re just starting out with 3D printing:
- You will need some type of CAD software to create 3D geometry, and a basic understanding of 3D modeling techniques to generate robust geometry. The quality of this geometry creation software ranges from “FREE” (you get what you pay for) to $20,000 per seat (everything you’d ever need and won’t use). Depending on your goals, a CAD software tool in-between FREE and high-priced will be right for you.
- In order to 3D print a part, an accurate 3D model is essential. It has to not only convey the design intent, but also represent the exact geometry desired. Additionally, this model must also be converted into a file format that’s readable by a 3D printer (typically an STL).
- A cheap 3D printer will often break and require a lot of maintenance. As usual, you get what you pay for, but again, depending on your goals, this may suit your needs.
- If you are building on-demand replacement parts (for instance, a 1976 Ford Mustang taillight) requires that you have permission from the original patent holder to replicate that part.
- The reality is that the cost of printing “on-demand” is currently pretty high. Using 3D printing technology appropriately requires a scalpel approach, rather than the chain-saw method.
However, there is no question in my mind that 3D printing is game changing. Here is my take on the immediate benefits. I am sure you all can think of more.
- The opportunities and innovation possibilities are enormous. There is buzz that the Navy would like to place a 3D printer on every ship in order to reduce logistics and maintenance complexity. In this vein, NAVAIR (Naval Air Systems) created a manifold that reduced the mass by 70% of the original manifold, and reduced assembly time as a first cut experiment of the technology.
- Manufacturing complex geometry becomes a reality. No longer are we mechanical designers constrained by tool paths and the need to “divide-up” our part to create internal cavities. No doubt 3D printing is just another manufacturing method that requires thought and thorough understanding of the technique, but allowing for complex internal geometry is a serious benefit. However, even though there is a “3D Print” button in your CAD software, keep in mind that 3D printing is a NEW manufacturing method that we don’t know everything about. At least when we machine on a mill, the “gotchas” are well understood.
- 3D printing is the ONLY manufacturing method that requires a 3D model. This reality drives the engineering culture to adopt a 3D model digital definition approach, such as Model-Based Definition (ASME Y14.41 and Y14.41.1), much more quickly than in prior years. Because 3D printing is moving along at a steady pace, the typical “CHASM” for new technologies will hopefully be shallow and short lived, moving AM into commoditization expediently. Because of this, people are now accelerating the need to have and build accurate 3D models.
- AM allows greater flexibility to test your products (prototype) faster, or to build your products with increased geometric complexity for production (end item).
What are your 3D printing implementation challenges and benefits?