3D printing has been maturing rapidly since the beginning of the decade, although the process can be traced back to a 1984 patent filing by a group of French inventors – Alain Le Mehaute, Oliver de Witte, and Jean Claude Andre.
As Alain Le Mehaute recounts in an interview with the French website, Primante3D, their patent application was abandoned by the French General Electric Company where they worked. Just a few weeks after this initial patent application, Charles Hull filed a patent for a similar process that he called Stereolithography and was granted the patent. The main limitation of this early form of 3D printing, compared to what is available today, consists in the range of materials that could be used. Stereolithography was typically limited to polymers and resins, while today a much wider range of materials are available due to improved methods.
The principle at the core of 3D printing, however, involves translating a computerized design schematic, which typically begins as a CAD diagram, into a physical object. The 3D diagram is ‘sliced’ into a multitude of 2D layers, which are then fed to the 3D printer and turned into a physical object layer-by-layer. This technique is called additive manufacturing because an object is built up from nothing, through the process of adding layers. In contrast, traditional manufacturing involves a ‘subtractive’ process, where a block of raw material is turned into its finished form by removing excess material. Additive manufacturing allows for a greater flexibility in creating parts and objects with complex designs that are otherwise impossible to create using traditional, subtractive manufacturing techniques.
One of the key reasons that 3D printing has been taking off in recent years is due to the expiration of many of the early patents that are responsible for its invention. As John F. Hornick explains in a 2016 article in the Robotics Business Review, “From 2002 to 2014, about 225 early 3D printing patents expired. About 16 key patents relating to 3D printing processes called Material Extrusion, Powder Bed Fusion, and Vat Polymerization expired in 2013-2014. This means that 3D printing technology that is at least 20 years old is now available for anyone to use.” Hornick also points out, however, that although patent expiration means that these technologies are now in the public domain, not only can it be “tricky” to figure out “when a patent actually expires,” but the scope of what becomes public domain after a patent expires is limited to the exact technology covered by the expired patent. In this sense, the cost reductions that result from patent expiration may be more limited to consumer 3D printing devices, rather than industrial ones. However, it does, prima facie, allow for a greater range of innovation in this space, starting from a now public domain technological foundation.
Historically, 3D printing has been primarily used for rapid prototyping and tooling. Not only can prototypes be quickly developed from CAD diagrams, but revising prototypes can also be done quickly and at very low cost. This has provided manufacturers with the necessary ability to experiment with designs and iterate before committing to large-scale production. The real breakthrough for 3D printing comes when this limited use-case can be extended to volume production. Scepticism nevertheless prevails on the subject of the volume production capabilities of 3D printing. Complex objects can take days to print and for some applications, it is still more expensive than traditional manufacturing. However, companies are continuing to experiment with 3D printing, and it is only a matter of time before these limitations are overcome, especially given the intense interest in the process by a wide range of manufacturers.
The Harvard Business Review reported in 2015 that GE, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Aurora Flight Services, Invisalign, Google, and LUXeXcel were among companies starting to use 3D printing to ramp up production. The companies here run the gamut from aviation and aerospace (GE, Lockheed Martin, Boeing) to medical and dental (Invisalign) and electronics (Google and LUXeXcel). Indeed, General Electric has been continuing to embrace the technology in ways that take it in new directions. The company reported in June of 2017 that they have been developing the Advanced Turboprop (ATP), the “first commercial aircraft engine in history with a large portion of its components made by additive manufacturing methods.” The report states that the flexibility of 3D printing allowed designers to reduce “855 separate parts down to just 12.” An aircraft outfitted with the ATP is expected to see its first test flight in late 2018. GE’s Advanced Turboprop is a dramatic example of the gains to be had due to the flexibility of additive manufacturing. The complexity of the designs that 3D printing technology is capable of producing reduces the number of distinct parts, which in turn streamlines the assembly process.
In general, this also leads to significant material cost savings. 3D printing makes use of just the right amount of material needed to produce parts, reducing costs associated with recovering the scrap material that is an inevitable byproduct of subtractive manufacturing. As Barrett Thompson reported in Manufacturing Business Technology, the additive nature of 3D printing allows manufacturers to use “the minimum material needed to fabricate a part.” As such, using 3D printing can “essentially eliminate the process of melting down excess scrap material and wasted resources, ultimately driving down total material costs for the manufacturer.” The cost savings here, in terms of capital tied up in raw materials and the reclaiming of scrap materials, are significant.
Another company that has been innovative in its manufacturing processes using 3D printing is Adidas, the German sportswear company. As The Economist reported in June of 2017, the company has been using 3D printing to manufacture the soles for a line of its trainers. 3D printing has allowed Adidas to create soles that are “light and flexible, with an intricate internal structure, the better to support the wearer’s foot.”
Not only does 3D printing allow Adidas to manufacture such intricate designs, but its method also points toward another area where 3D printing can achieve additional cost savings: automation. The company plans to manufacture the shoes in two “highly automated factories in Germany and America, instead of producing them in the low-cost Asian countries to which most trainer production has been outsourced in recent years.” And, as a testament to the rapid improvements occurring in the 3D printing space, The Economist reports that these new factories will “turn out up to 500,000 pairs of trainers a year,” but with only about a week of lead time, rather than the months it generally takes in the industry to move from design to having the product ready to ship to consumers.
Adidas shipped its first 3D printed shoes earlier this year and, while their production didn’t entirely live up to The Economist’s 2017 report (the shoes are available for US $300, and in limited quantities, as reported by Tech Crunch), it is worth noting that this experiment in 3D printing has led to some key investments in the technology that will lead to continued innovation and improvement. Adidas uses an additive manufacturing process developed by the company Carbon that is credited with speeding up the process significantly. As Tech Crunch reported earlier this year, Adidas’ Executive Board Member Eric Liedtke joined Carbon’s Board of Directors, and the sportswear company further helped secure a $200 million Series D round of funding for Carbon. The improvements in the process are already well underway, with Carbon CEO Joseph DeSimone expecting to move from “5,000 pairs to hundreds of thousands this year , and potentially millions in the next.”
Carbon has developed its proprietary Continued Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology, which involves Digital Light Synthesis (DLS). Objects are created via this process out of a pool of liquid photopolymer resin. UV light solidifies the resin layer-by-layer to the precise specifications fed to the printer, and the object gradually rises out of the pool of resin just slowly enough to allow the object to be formed layer-by-layer. A 2015 article by researchers in the journal Science reported that the process is up to 100 times faster than other additive manufacturing methods.
Given the relative speed at which Carbon’s technology can create objects, it is a real milestone in the race to make 3D printing viable for volume manufacturing. As the technology continues to develop, its benefits grow more clearly into focus. Not only are there major cost savings to be achieved in terms of efficiencies in the use of raw materials, but 3D printing also opens up opportunities for automated manufacturing, shorter lead times, and reduced storage capacity for inventory. The future of 3D printing is a future in which inventory can be produced on demand and customized to the needs and desires of the consumer with minimal turnaround time and where repetitive manufacturing tasks can be automated, freeing up labour for other tasks. But it is also a future in which innovation can be brought to market faster and more efficiently.