3D printing makes it in the real world
Additive manufacturing has gone mainstream, being used to create product parts that would be impossible or too expensive to make otherwise.
When major international brands like Adidas, BMW and Siemens start using a niche technology in their main production processes, you know it has arrived. That’s the case with 3D printing, known in industry circles as additive manufacturing.
Long favoured as a means of prototyping and developing proof-of-concept models, the era of mass adoption of 3D printing is here, and it’s an era that Irish companies and educators are determined to play a role in.
“The proof that additive manufacturing has arrived, so to speak, is that we are now seeing regulated industries adopting it and that’s really interesting. This is happening in the top three regulated industries of aerospace, healthcare and automotive and that’s a good sign,” said David Alarco, programme coordinator at the South East Technological University (SETU).
“These are big league players. When it comes to manufacturing, they don’t care much about how something is done, they care about the quality and reliability. They don’t play around with materials and when there are health issues involved, there are high costs to taking risks and getting things wrong.”
Alarco is the head of a one-year degree programme in additive manufacturing at SETU that started in 2022. The first course of its kind in Ireland, it teaches the specifics of how to create an object by printing, or building it one layer at a time.
“If you’re launching a rocket or putting a part in a car that’s going to be there for ten years, then there are a lot of hoops to jump through and restrictions in place. The fact that big players are adopting 3D printing to do these kinds of things is significant.”
The appeal of 3D printing is that as a manufacturing technique, it offers speed, reliability and low costs. It also allows some things to be done that otherwise either wouldn’t be possible, or would often not be cost-effective enough to achieve.
“Additive manufacturing has endless possibilities in industry and there is a gap in the market for skilled people in this area. That’s why we’ve set this course up. It is a technology that is going to change everything, from how we build houses to how we design medical implants and even how we fly rockets to the moon,” said Alarco.
In the last few years, there has been significant mass market adoption of 3D printing for applications where it allows companies to offer products that otherwise would either be impossible to make, or would cost a lot more using traditional processes. Adidas’s latest 4DFWD running shoe, for example, features a 3D-printed midsole that it says is “precisely tuned for controlled energy return, with an intricate lattice structure and responsive cushioning absorbing pressure from any angle”.
BMW uses the technology to create parts for its cars in both metal and plastic, and at the end of 2018 it announced it had produced more than one million parts in that way. Elsewhere in construction, 3D printing has become common to make both sections of houses and entire homes. Cement walls and entire structures can be printed in hours using specialist large-scale equipment.
It’s also thought that the second version of the Apple Watch Ultra, due to launch in September, will feature 3D-printed mechanical components made from titanium. And in a throw-back to its prototyping history, 3D printing is also finding its way into marketing and advertising, where it’s being used to create one-off visual merchandising, point of sale props and bespoke shop fit-outs for companies such as Louis Vuitton, Coca Cola and Dior.
“When you look at something like Adidas’s midsole, that’s an example of something that wouldn’t just have been complicated and expensive to make in other ways, it would have been impossible. It has a number of lattices and interconnected structures that it wouldn’t have been possible to make using traditional foams and sandwiches of cushioning materials,” said Alarco.
However when created using additive manufacturing, it delivers a performance in terms of cushioning and energy return that Adidas says is “astonishing”.
“Likewise, if Apple is using additive manufacturing to make a new Ultra watch then that’s because they have a good reason to do so. They’ll be looking for something that is reliable and cost effective to produce and if it’s a part that comes in contact with the skin of the wearer, then they’ll also have to worry about bio-compatibility. People sweat and develop rashes and irritations, etc, so that all has to be considered,” said Alarco.
“It will have to pass a lot of standards, and if they’re going to include it the reason will be because other ways of doing the same thing would probably involve three, five or ten processes and 3D printing will consolidate those into one. That means less tooling, less error-proofing, less capital expenditure in assembly lines and enough savings that it makes sense.”
Alarco makes the point that when any new technology arrives, many companies are happy to sit back and watch others take some risks with integrating it into their supply chains.
“This is one of those situations where many companies want to be number two, not number one. They don’t want to pay the bill to prove that a technology is ready. But that has now been done so we are at the start of a boom in 3D-printing applications precisely because some really big players have validated it,” he said.
“And that’s why we’re offering the training we are now. There is going to be an intense need for an upskilled work force who can implement this in industry. The people who graduate from our course will be ambassadors for this as a solution in Ireland.”
SETU’s additive manufacturing courses are offered in two versions. The first is a one-year part time bachelor of science degree starting in September, while the second is a 15-week Introduction to Additive Manufacturing certificate course that starts in October.
Author: Alex Meehan / www.businesspost.ie
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