Analyst details industrial roles of 3D printing technology

In this Q&A, Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere discusses how advancements in 3D printing may move beyond prototyping to help improve traditional manufacturing processes.

Although 3D printing technology is not new, aside from a few use cases and industries, it has yet to make significant inroads as a manufacturing alternative. However, developments in 3D printing technology -- also known as additive manufacturing -- continue to advance, with new printing machines, processes and materials becoming available. Equally important are the software systems that help companies manage and run 3D printing and newly emerging 3D printing networks that can enable it on demand for organizations that don't want to implement such activities in-house. In this interview at the recent Rapid + TCT trade show of 3D printing technology, Pete Basiliere, Gartner research vice president for additive manufacturing, spoke about the industry and how 3D printing may become an integral part of manufacturing processes.

The 3D printing industry has been around for about 30 years but still represents only a small percentage of manufacturing as a whole. Are there signs that it can take a more important role in manufacturing?

Pete BasilierePete Basiliere

Pete Basiliere: Absolutely. There are some industries where it's a natural, whether it's for prototyping, which is the dominant use in aerospace and automotive, or finished goods, which is the dominant use actually in medical devices. My hearing aid shells are 3D printed, so they're different from every other one that's produced. So, the hearing aid industry is saturated; every manufacturer offers 3D printed shells for their hearing aids. Then, you have the dental industry with the clear dental braces, like the Invisalign brand from Align. They're making 300,000 molds every day that are then used to thermoform or manufacture the actual brace. That product could not exist in those kinds of volumes unless you had 3D printing technology.

How can 3D printing move beyond these industries and use cases?

Basiliere: The way for 3D printing to go forward is to expand beyond prototyping, which is a logical and oftentimes lower cost way to get into 3D printing, and recognize that for manufacturing there's a vast middle where you use 3D printing technology to augment or support the manufacturing line with tools, jigs and fixtures. If it's low money to buy relatively basic 3D printing capabilities -- for example, you can get an FDM [fused deposition modeling] machine and a 3D scanner for less than $10,000 -- for many managers or businesses, if that $10,000 is already in the capital budget, they don't have to get an ROI analysis done; they don't have to get finance's approval. Many organizations will see that it makes sense [to use 3D printing] to prototype, because they have a goal to produce finished products. However, a lot of manufacturers overlook that they can use 3D printing to create the jigs and fixtures that enable their people to do their jobs with conventional technology, but a lot better.

So, using 3D printing technology can actually improve traditional manufacturing?

A lot of manufacturers overlook that they can use 3D printing to create the jigs and fixtures that enable their people to do their jobs with conventional technology, but a lot better.
Pete BasiliereResearch VP for additive manufacturing, Gartner

Basiliere: Yes. For example, you've got people who are already redesigning the grippers on robot arms. With 3D printing, you can lessen the weight on the gripper, and there are ways where you can improve the throughput of a robot because you're able to lighten the grippers and maybe make them more task-specific. Similarly, Ultimaker worked with VW Autoeuropa [to make] simple jigs that help an assembly line worker mount the wheel and tire to the hub. This is faster than the previous process, and it also prevents marring or scarring of the wheel, which would be a defect that has to be dealt with after the fact. And, when done right, you can reduce the opportunity of physical injury or repetitive injury to the worker. Those are quantifiable savings that are often overlooked. They may not be huge dollars -- in the case of Ultimaker, they're on the order of $300,000 annually -- but that's still more than the cost of the equipment. And there's a qualitative benefit as well. Lockheed Martin is also using 5,000 3D printed tools, jigs and fixtures in just one aircraft program.

What are some other developments that are advancing the use of 3D printing in manufacturing?

Basiliere: Now we are seeing companies like an SAP or a Siemens coming into the market, plus many other smaller companies who are enabling companies to easily cost a project, price a project if it's an external buyer and then submit it into your schedule and track it throughout the entire process and integrate the results into your ERP system. That's one of the areas where the industry has needed support, that whole workflow management process. It's well-established for conventional technologies and conventional manufacturing, but it's only just in the last couple years that we're starting to see major players with significant offerings. A company like Prosper3D has developed an end-to-end application that enables costing, pricing and tracking throughout the entire process.

Those are applications that help companies manage internal processes for 3D printing. Will we start to see the growth of external networks, like the ones SAP and Siemens have set up, to enable companies to outsource 3D printing?

Basiliere: Networking is still in an early stage. Our research at Gartner found that most people who use a 3D printing service bureau are looking for someone within the region. If you're in Fort Worth, [Texas], you don't necessarily need somebody in Houston, but you'd be willing to take somebody in the Southwest as a provider. They can print the part and get it to you within a few hours or a day. So, it doesn't have to be immediately local -- although hospitals are a different animal -- but we're starting to see networks of these 3D printing service bureaus. For example, UPS/Fast Radius, Siemens and SAP are trying to pull that together, and that starts to enable a company to design here and have it produced somewhere else or maybe have it designed and produced in multiple locations. But you have to have a market for that. I refer to the concept of local production for local consumption, and you can envision a large consumer goods company that may be based in Boston, for example, that wants to produce small amounts of shoes or whatever they're producing in Paris or San Francisco. These kind of networks enable that. It raises questions about intellectual property [and] security, but in some respects, it's no different than sourcing your other products. You have to trust your supply chain.

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