Additive manufacturing: Disruption or evolution?

Either way, 3D printing (additive manufacturing) needs controls and materials engineers and technologies to increase speed, quality, and material properties related to these rapidly advancing machines, so think again.

By Mark T. Hoske August 1, 2013

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, “is going to change every aspect of our lives,” said Hod Lipson, associate professor, Cornell University. 3D printing technologies can build with stainless steel and titanium, plastics (where 3D printing began), paper, and other materials, including living tissues (still in development), such as printing a new heart valve, spinal disc, or a custom fit piece of tissue replacement for accident victims.

3D printers use automation and controls, although they could integrate more. Many machines do not have feedback devices, so do not provide closed-loop control. Increasing speed and accuracy of future generations of machines will benefit from additional automation.

Lipson, author of the recent book, “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing” (John Wiley, publisher), hosted the Inside 3D Printing Conference & Expo in Chicago, the second of a three-part series of conferences on the topic in 2013. Additive manufacturing, subject of a Control Engineering October 2013 article, also may bring huge changes to manufacturing and assembly. The topic has broad appeal with Chicago conference participants from 16 countries and registrants from 35 U.S. states, across many industries.

3D printing changes everything

Whether disruptive or merely an evolution, 3D printing will create far-reaching changes, economically, socially, and to various business models, Lipson said. An example of supply chain disruption, for example, might be when (perhaps within 20 years) a customer selects a future smartphone design, download it, then print it at a local store, eliminating traditional manufacturing, assembly, and logistics.

3D printers doing additive manufacturing now in selective applications displace CNC machines that remove materials to form a part. Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are heavy users of automation and controls, and 3D printers, to increase accuracy and speed, will need to use more. At present, 3D printing is especially useful for the design and prototype stage of products, but increasingly is used for creating custom end products, and small production runs, from one to a few thousand. Huge material savings can result. Imagine a large block of titanium used for an aerospace part; perhaps 85% of a block is cut away. Forming just the 15% that is needed could save a lot in time and materials.

S. Scott Crump, chairman and chief innovation officer, Stratasys Ltd., one of the largest 3D machine companies, co-founded the business 25 years ago with his wife Linda, in their garage. “Now some products can be designed in computer-aided design (CAD) software, press the print button, and get the finished part out.” Further, digital part manufacturing produces completed end-user assemblies.

“In 1988, 3D printers didn’t exist,” said Crump. “We made the first for the relatively low cost of $12,000. It made a toy froggy for my 2-year old daughter from thin beads from a glue gun. In 1992, it was an automated glue gun. After formal engineering for the first commercial product, in 1994, we made the first 3D printer.”

Today 3D printing is making a difference in peoples’ lives. A 3D printed exoskeleton allows a previously crippled girl to play by counter balancing gravity with rubber bands.

Stratasys makes 22 models of 3D printers with more than 120 output materials. More than 30,000 are installed, including 55% of all commercial 3D printers, according to Wohlers Associates numbers.

3D printing market impact grows

Crump cited a McKinsey Global Institute report from May that said 3D printing could generate an economic impact of $230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025 in certain applications, the largest from consumer uses, followed by direct manufacturing and use of 3D printing to create tools and molds. Neither stated today’s economic impact. The MGI report did note a 90% drop in home 3D printer prices in just four years and said additive manufacturing revenue increased four-fold in the past 10 years, citing revenue growth to $200-$600 billion by 2025.

Stratasys has grown with the industry, Crump said, with more than 1,200 employees, more than 8,000 customers, and more than 550 patents. In 2012, the company had about $350 million revenue with almost $60 million profit, and 12 offices, 260 resellers, and about 1000 direct sales persons globally. The company offers two 3D technologies in three series of printers.

“3D technologies provide an idea engine to advance the design power of prototyping and provide production without a production line,” Crump said. President Obama has touted 3D manufacturing as one way to advance manufacturing growth, and GE has talked about 3D to make jet engines. Delta Airlines currently uses 3D printing to make spare parts. “Anyone who makes anything can now use 3D printing,” Crump said. Other uses include automotive, manufacturing jigs and fixtures, medical, consumer, architectural, industrial, and for education. Mass customization is affordable without tooling or setup. Think again, because manufacturing is not changing slowly; 3D printing is turning our understanding of manufacturing and industry upside down.

Additive manufacturing can be the automated factory of the future, Crump said. “We churn out thousands of parts and assemblies daily with a couple of operators. It is clean, efficient, and flexible. We can be making a toy in the morning and an airplane part in the afternoon. We work 24/7, in three shifts, providing instant online quotes and quick turns.”

With Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology, “the only limit is your imagination. These machines move manufacturing onto the desktop. The process is clean and easy to use, and offers many prices, resins, plastics, and metals.” They are even being used by artists and fashion designers. “Welcome to a 3D world. We’re passionate about the value of that.”

Affordable 3D

Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot Industries, helped make 3D printing affordable and accessible. Sharing reflections on the next industrial revolution, he said that MakerBot users are changing the world. He also noted, without presenting details, “Scott and I just inked a deal to join forces.” The deal, announced June 19, 2013, merges MakerBot into a Stratasys subsidiary in a stock-for-stock transaction worth up to $604 million, depending on performance, and expected to be completed during third-quarter 2013, “subject to regulatory approvals and other conditions customary for such transactions,” the companies’ statement said. MakerBot reported first-quarter 2013 revenue of $11.5 million, compared to $15.7 million for all of 2012.

Pettis said, “When you fix and make things, chemicals are released in your brain that make you happy,” although, he added, seemingly with personal knowledge, “Never put a random button on a cocktail-mixing robot.”

On MakerBot’s site, creators share their work and get recognized. There are 80,000 designs there, half added in the last 90 days.

What they’ve made

The MakerBot Customizer allows those who do know SolidWorks or AutoCAD to design their own iPhone case. Also, there is the Duplo brick to Brio track adapter, an obvious need for those who like a hands-on toy train experience.

Users of MakerBots include the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, which has used them on a spacecraft heat shield prototype design. An inventor who lost his fingers decided to make new ones. The resulting Robohand, developed quickly from revision to revision, allowing collaborative work, gives injured children dexterity again. Kids grow out of $20,000 customized prosthetics like sneakers. This design eliminated hardware, has easier cable installation, and allows printing of a larger size as needed; $5 of plastic is used.

A set designer once took days to create layouts with cardboard, glue, and knives. Now it is done overnight.

An educator allows children to print model houses, place them along a model river, and let the water run to demonstrate erosion.

A father and  daughter about to vacation at an expensive amusement park saved the day by creating custom orthotics for her shoes, allowing the 41.5-in. child to stand 42 in. tall and ride all the rides.

A music lover built a harpsichord made from MakerBot pieces.

Parents are using 3D scanning to scan and make copies of precious Play-Doh art projects soon to get crusty and fall apart.

Pettis, Crump question each other about 3D design, small business

Pettis asked Crump about the early versions of the Stratasys machines.

“We had obstacles in explaining the early machines to people,” Crump replied. “I would go into a mechanical engineering office. They understood what I was saying, but at that time it was not the accepted norm to do all design in the computer. I had a lot of really short meetings.”

Crump said that while the passion remains, in the early days, it was all passion about building the machines, as opposed to building the company. “My wife reminded me of the need to make money.”

Crump, addressing Pettis, noted, “Your early kit had a frame of wood. That was genius. We did same thing. With Formica. It sold for $250,000. Interestingly enough, wood burns. And there’s a heating element in box. ABS plastic is fuel. The original models did smoke a few rooms. No one died or went to jail. It was not disaster, but there was definitely a learning curve involved.”

Crump asked, “Why did you offer your first machines as kits?”

“Part of it,” Pettis replied, “was that we didn’t have manufacturing capabilities. We were three guys with a laser cutter and a dream. If we were engineers, we’d still be on the prototype. The kit included the box, a board, a sandwich bag of components, silver solder, and instructions explaining how to burn the board in a toaster oven. The first 200 MakerBot buyers were pioneers. We figured if customers could put it together and it breaks, they’ll know how to fix it. When we started sending fully assembled machines, some early customers said they wanted to put them together themselves.”

Pettis continued, explaining that it took awhile to get used to the manufacturing world. “We found the stepper motors we wanted to buy. Placed our order, wanted to buy more, and were told that we bought them all. We didn’t think that was possible. To complicate things, they had a 6-week lead time. And they were going on a 6-week vacation.”

“Any advice for other start-up companies?” Crump asked.

“Yes,” Pettis said. “If you run a small business, I recommend getting to this point as quickly as possible. Hire professionals who know what they’re doing and have done it before. That way, you can more easily get to the point of shipping hundreds per day, instead of 20 a month.”

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Link to other 3D articles at the bottom.

A third 2013 conference, Inside 3D Printing, will be held in San Jose, Sept. 17-18.

Video shows a 3D printed exoskeleton, counter balanced rubber bands on a frame, that allows a child to play, write, and play games, when she couldn’t previously. 

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.