Few topics are as hot in manufacturing as 3D printing (also termed additive manufacturing). 3D printers spit out bits of metal or plastic in much the same way an ink jet printer spits out ink. While layering ink on ink doesn’t get you much, layering plastic on plastic allows for objects to gradually be built up. Much has been written about the potential impact of this new way of making stuff. Indeed, we already have several posts on the topic. But most of those stories focus on what could happen once the technology develops. How are firms using it now?
That is the topic of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (Printing Out Barbies and Ford Cylinders, Jun 6). It emphasizes two primary applications. The first is prototyping.
At the Beech Daly Technical Center in Dearborn, Mich., Ford engineers use industrial-grade machines that cost as much as $1 million to produce prototypes of cylinder heads, brake rotors, and rear axles in less time than traditional manufacturing methods, said Paul Susalla, section supervisor of rapid manufacturing at Ford.
Using 3-D printing, Ford saves an average of one month of production time to create a casting for a prototype cylinder head for its EcoBoost family of engines, designed for better fuel efficiency. This complex part includes numerous ports, ducts, passages and valves to manage fuel and air flow.
Mr. Susalla said the traditional casting method, which requires designing both a sand mold as well as the tool to cut the mold, can take four to five months.
You should also check out this video with one of the Ford engineers involved in their digital printing shop.
Prototyping makes sense as an area in which 3D printing can make inroads. To some extent, 3D printing in its current state is characterized by a low set up cost but a relatively high variable cost. Those costs may be high in terms of time instead of dollars. The idea is that if you are going to produce millions and millions of something (like lids for milk jugs), 3D printing is not the way to go. However, that low set up cost makes it attractive for things that are not currently produced in volume. This would be especially true in the development phase in which the design is still subject to change and having a prototype to play with is key to work moving forward.
The other application that the article mentions is parts with tricky geometries.
Mark Little, senior vice president and director of GE’s global research group, said that building jet engine airflow castings by melting metal powders layer by layer can be more precise than making and cutting the parts from a ceramic mold. GE said this process is technically more efficient and should save the company money in the future. The company declined to speculate on potential cost savings.
“We can make these parts in a way that we simply couldn’t make them before to get better cooling passages and better cooling efficiency,” Mr. Little said.
Note that scale matters in this example as well. Jet engines are inherently low volume items. GE is very unlikely to ever be turning out a million units a year of any one design. Hence, using 3D printing to achieve superior performance or less weight (or both) makes a lot of sense.
A final point. An application that one often hears for 3D printing is that it would allow users to print their own replacement parts. The article throws a little cold water on that prospect when it discusses how Mattel uses 3D printing.
But the toy maker draws the line at selling consumers software files that would enable them to print out their own toys on low-cost 3-D printers.
A company spokesman said the company couldn’t guarantee toys that consumers printed out would be safe for children, a “topic that the entire toy industry will have to face and embrace” as 3-D printer use broadens at home.