How some companies are trying to make 3D printing scale for the masses
The news is full of one-off 3D printing miracles.
As long ago as 2011, an 83 year old woman’s diseased lower jaw was replaced by a 3D printed titanium jawbone. This year, Pete the parrot lost a leg to a hungry fox, and is having a new one created.
Recently, both animals and humans have had prosthetic limbs 3D printed, and dentists are making root canals and subsequent tooth replacement a quicker and less annoying process by 3D printing the custom caps in their offices rather than waiting for them to be manufactured in a lab. 3D bioprinters are even printing skin for burn patients, as well as generating scaffolds on which cells can then grow to build blood vessels and bones.
It’s a triumph of technology that helps everyone, from doctors and veterinarians creating prostheses to manufacturers building prototypes. But it usually doesn’t scale.
HP Inc. is one of the companies working to change that, with its Multi Jet Fusion technology that hit the market in late 2016. In partnership with Deloitte, it is now working with interested companies such as contract manufacturer Jabil to help replace older technologies like injection molding where it makes economic sense.
The challenges are huge, but so are the rewards – there’s an estimated US$12 trillion manufacturing market ripe for disruption. However, creating 3D printed objects at scale isn’t easy.
Aside from the speed issue — anyone with a home 3D printer knows that even the simplest objects can take hours to create as the printer painstakingly lays down tiny layer after tiny layer of material — there are problems with consistency and quality. While it’s not important if one Yoda statuette isn’t exactly the same as the next one you print as a stocking stuffer, when you’re creating car parts or anything else that needs to be part of a mass-produced whole, the tiniest deviations can cause huge problems on the assembly line.
Consistent quality is another roadblock. Each part needs to meet certain specs, something that can’t be guaranteed with traditional 3D printers. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion is attempting to solve these problems by controlling output at the voxel (the 3D equivalent of a pixel on your screen) level.
A consumer 3D printer draws layers of material – usually plastic – onto a flat bed according to a preprogrammed pattern, the way a baker would use frosting to decorate a cake, piling the layers on top of each other until a shape emerges. That shape may be affected by little hiccups in the material, which is usually plastic melted from a spool of plastic string, or by flaws in the way the melted material is laid down.
But in an additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) environment, it works differently. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology lays down a thin layer of specially formulated powdered plastic (the company has begun working with metals too) on the print bed. Then a heat-sensitive “ink” prints one slice of the item onto the plastic, and heating lamps pass overhead, only melting the plastic that’s been covered in ink. The next layer of powder is spread and similarly treated, until what you have is a part encased in a mass of unfused powder. Once that excess powder is removed (and recycled), the part is left.
Of course, in a production environment, printing one part at a time is inefficient. Sophisticated software figures out how to print several parts at once, maximizing each run’s output with a Tetris-like exercise in fitting pieces close together. That allows complex components to be created as independent entities yet be printed in a single batch of up to 80 different parts.
If, for example, you wanted to create a cat toy consisting of a small plastic ball inside a bigger one, with traditional methods you’d manufacture the small ball, build the larger ball in two pieces, then insert the small ball and glue the pieces together. With 3D printing, you simply instruct the machine to print the small ball inside the perimeter of the larger one (kind of like drawing a small circle inside a large one on paper), and the toy would emerge complete.
In the real world, it lets items such as a spine spreader that Johnson & Johnson formerly created in seven separate pieces, which then had to be assembled, to be printed as a single item, both improving its structural integrity and cutting manufacturing costs. Someday, perhaps hospitals will be able to print these devices on demand, eliminating the need to carry stock. It allows parts to be manufactured using less material, since 3D printing offers more flexibility than traditional manufacturing that starts with a lump of something and carves away bits to build an item. HP is even experimenting with printing circuits and sensors into parts as they’re made.
Jabil, which has used HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printers from their earliest days, has been working with the company to refine the technology and make sure it’s up to manufacturing standards. Today, it has found that it can get parts into production with 3D printing weeks faster than it can with injection molding, and make changes through software rather than waiting for a die or mold to be constructed. It even 3D prints parts for itself; up to half of the plastic parts in a Multi Jet Fusion printer are 3D printed.
Its customers are starting to come on board. A year ago, said John Dulchinos, Jabil’s VP of digital manufacturing, he had to push customers to even think about the technology, but now “it’s just coming at us”. Jabil works with 250 of the top brands, and Dulchinos says that most of them are looking at 3D printing for some things.
There are still many challenges before mass adoption of additive manufacturing can occur, however. Designers have to learn how to create for the technology; it’s a different thought process. Materials must be developed (one kind of plastic or other material won’t work for all applications). HP, which says doesn’t want to be a materials company, is building an open ecosystem and certifies products for the Multi Jet Fusion. And, there’s the economic factor – figuring out when it makes financial sense to switch techniques.
Still, said Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen, “The digitalization of global manufacturing operations and practices will impact companies and consumers around the world, and 3D printing will play an important role in fundamentally changing manufacturing as we know it.”