OPINION: 3D ready to give manufacturing sector a complete makeover

Unlike some may think, 3D printing is not just an innovative technology for rapid prototyping, modelling and manufacturing of specialised one-off products. It is an essential building block of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that has the ability to alter the way in which manufacturing and consumption are connected.

Manufacturing with 3D has the potential to level the playing field for new and established businesses by taking advantage of less complex design tools and real-time production to test innovative new concepts, prototype new product ideas and get them to the users in days instead of weeks.

These are some of the reasons why it is predicted that by the year 2030 additive or 3D manufacturing technologies will allow companies to manufacture completed products on a large scale, which will change the manufacturing sector forever.

The earliest application of additive manufacturing was in the tool room, where 3D (or additive) printing was used for rapid prototyping to reduce the lead time and cost of developing prototypes of new parts and devices.

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Before 3D printing, time-consuming subtractive tool room methods such as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling, turning and precision grinding were used for prototyping. It was only in the 2010s that additive manufacturing slowly entered production.

Today, 3D printing is a very successful commercial technology that is used in numerous fields with great success. It is a game-changer in manufacturing, from clothes to houses and even complete jet engines.

Already in 2016, offices were built in Dubai using large 3D printed polymer shells assembled on site. In the US, houses with a ground surface area of 225m² are 3D printed within 24 hours.

At a currently undisclosed place in Latin America, an entire 3D printed neighbourhood for a small community of 50 farmers and weavers will be built in 24 hours. Perhaps 3D printing could be a solution for South Africa’s low-cost housing needs.

In cars, trucks and aircraft, additive manufacturing is beginning to transform both the unibody/fuselage and the powertrain design and production. The futuristic Audi RSQ that was used in the movie I-robot was made with 3D printing or rapid prototyping industrial robots. Rapid prototyping or manufacturing reduces development time by allowing rectifications to a product to be made early in the process.

Many Formula One teams use 3D printed non-carbon brake ducts and many other car parts that are 3D printed. Local Motors developed Strati, a fully functioning vehicle that was entirely 3D printed using ABS plastic and carbon fibre.

Many fully functional jet engine models have been 3D printed. It may sound like science fiction, but 3D printers are capable of printing the hundreds of very precise components of a jet engine.

The well-known YouTube user Punk Rocker created a very realistic jet engine modelled after the engines of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, complete with thrust reverser for backwards motion. Although 3D printed in polymer, it looks and operates like a real engine.

The JetX group at the University of Glasgow manufactured a fully functional jet engine consisting of more than 260 3D printed parts. They used about 4.6km of filament to produce this small powerful engine. It is fully equipped with internal sensors to measure temperature, airflow and pressure and is a great instrument for aerospace education.

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At the moment, 3D printed jet engines are used only for educational purposes and for prototyping. But with just two weeks to 3D print a jet engine, I believe we may sooner than later be flying with 3D manufactured jet engines.

Boeing and GE Aviation are already using 3D printed turbine blades, fuel nozzles, fuel mixers, sensors, heat exchangers and separators in the new Boeing 777X twin-engine jet, making the engine lighter and more fuel efficient. Airbus is using more than 1 000 3D printed components in their Airbus A350.

GE Aviation also used additive manufacturing to create a helicopter engine with 16 parts instead of 900, showing the potential impact of 3D printing on reducing the complexity of supply chains.

But 3D printing has also reached the world of clothing, with fashion designers experimenting with 3D printed bikinis, shoes and dresses. Ruth Carter, the Oscar-nominated costume designer of the highly successful film Black Panther, used 3D printing to create most of the costumes and jewellery used in it.

At the recent Met Gala in New York, American fashion designer Zac Posen showcased several of his sensational 3D printed dresses and called it “the future of fashion”. The dresses were made from durable polymer, of which some were sprayed with colour-shifting paint.

However, it took more than 1 000 hours to print one dress. It will, therefore, take some time before 3D printed dresses become widely available or before 3D printing is successfully transformed into a print-it-yourself tool for the average dressmaker. But the time will surely come.

In commercial production, Nike is using 3D printing to prototype and manufacture the new Zoom VaporFly Elite Flyprint 3D shoe upper, which is particularly suitable for wet conditions. According to independent research, the custom-fit running shoe lowers the energetic cost of running by 4%.

Adidas is using 3D printing to manufacture thousands of its Futurecraft 4D shoes and, together with the company Carbon, overcame one of the biggest problems of 3D printing, namely mass production.

Printing in 3D has had a considerable impact on the eye-wear industry, allowing producers to make custom frames and even enabling customers to 3D print their own frames. Luxexcel Technology developed a unique 3D print technology to create ophthalmic lenses which do not require polishing or grinding. In South Africa, architect Handre de la Rey created sunglasses made of concrete. The glasses, which weigh only 100g, were 3D modelled and printed. The major benefit of the 3D printing of glasses is that it makes on-demand custom-fit and styling possible.

Similarly, additive manufacturing had an impact on the firearms industry. This impact involves two dimensions: New prototyping and manufacturing methods for established firearm companies and new prospects for the do-it-yourself firearm user. It is quite easy to download 3D designs for pistols and semi-automatic assault rifles from the Web and to 3D print your own firearm. The 3D printing of firearms is not allowed in South Africa, where any unlicensed printed firearm would be illegal. Nonetheless, such printing of firearms does raise serious concerns regarding gun control.

Since 3D guns are not made of metal, they may slip through metal detectors or other security measures undetected. In the US, there was an unsuccessful attempt to prohibit the online publishing of firearm designs and to make it compulsory that all printed firearms must contain at least one metal part so that they can be detected by metal detectors.

Although desktop 3D printing currently does not allow high-quality firearms to be created at home, this could change as metal 3D printing becomes more affordable and accessible. However, until now no violent crimes involving 3D printed guns have been reported. This can probably be attributed to the unreliability of 3D printed firearms and the danger to the shooter, as was proved in tests. Yet, we will have to keep an eye on this space as technology develops.

It is time for South African lawmakers to act pre-emptively.

Additive manufacturing makes the distribution of product designs and build files around the world possible, thus bringing manufacturing closer to the consumer. Product delivery will be significantly faster and customised, since its production will be based on consumer demand and local consumer taste.

Written by Professor Louis Fourie, the deputy vice-chancellor: Knowledge and Information Technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.