Imagine a world where an item is instantly made for you at home only minutes after you’ve ordered it online. How about designing an artificial limb for your patient, and then watching it take shape right before your very eyes? This is the futuristic world made possible by 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.
3D printing is a relatively new technology that creates full-fledged, three-dimensional objects. Designs are fed into a computer, which then commands the 3D printer to build them. The printer does this by depositing successive layers of material in the required configuration until the object is complete. The entire process is so quick and easy-to-use that almost anyone can use it to create objects within the comfort of their own homes. However, don’t let the simplicity of the process fool you. 3D printing can make exceedingly complex objects – from fully-functional internal organs to durable motorcycle shells. In fact, 3D printing has only just begun to scratch the surface of its full potential.
The awe-inspiring possibilities of 3D printing were recently showcased at the 2015 FABTECH show. A roster of expert speakers and panelists hosted professional program sessions, conferences, and keynotes that highlighted the ever-growing potential of 3D printing. Most of the presenters used their time in the spotlight to counter common misconceptions about 3D printing. You see, despite its many benefits, many industry leaders are hesitant to fully embrace this new technology because of its limited application. Currently, the process is primarily used to create prototypes, functional models, and small production runs. However, new 3D printing applications are being discovered every day.
To help reverse negative perceptions, a presentation titled “What Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing Means for the Industry” set out to demonstrate how the positives of 3D printing outweigh the bad. For starters, its speed and ease of use can help shorten the time between project initiation and completion. 3D printing can also be used to create flawless parts over long periods of time, whereas traditional tools may have difficulty maintaining accuracy during long production runs. However, despite all its potential, the presentation’s panelists unanimously agreed that 3D printing is not a replacement for metal fabricators. 3D printing is best used as a complement, not a replacement. In fact, the key to effectively using 3D printing is to find opportunities where the technology can help design and create parts that fall outside of the constraints of just forming and welding. Lastly, the panelists acknowledged that 3D printing is still evolving, which means it has some limitations and challenges to overcome. For example, some 3D printing applications are still in need of more effective inspection methods. Thus, companies looking to use 3D printing must develop the process that is right for them, as well as invest in equipment and personnel training.
Another presentation called, “State of the Industry Executive Outlook: Advanced Manufacturing,” provided attendees with a positive outlook on the future of 3D printing. According to the presenters, the process is currently being used in conjunction with other processes, such as heat treating, to create completely new products and expand 3D printing’s capabilities. (See last week’s blog on the new MX3D metal printer that led to the invention of the Arc Bike). The presenters also praised 3D printing for its impact on education. Because of this easy-to-use technology, there is a whole new generation of students who won’t be bogged down by the design constraints of their predecessors. Using a 3D printer, students can now envision and easily execute very complex solutions to real-life problems that would be impossible to replicate with other methods. 3D printing’s potential to inspire students also makes it an important tool that teachers can use to enhance learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
If you want to know more about the exciting advances in 3D printing and its display at FABTECH, check out “Additive Manufacturing: Groundbreaking Technology or Just Another Tool?” in the January 2016 issue of the Welding Journal, free with your AWS membership.
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