Where Is Additive Manufacturing Headed?

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Where Is Additive Manufacturing Headed?

Print out new parts or entire products as easily as you print out a product catalog.  That’s the promise of additive manufacturing, and it’s generating a lot of buzz.  What’s the reality behind the hype?  Let’s take a closer look at this technology, and the implications.

3D printers can make toys, iPhone covers, tools, or a multitude of other items by building them one layer at a time, using powdered plastic or other materials.  Users can download free designs from Web sites like Thingiverse, or use CAD software to create their own designs.

3D printing is the most scalable and easily understood additive manufacturing technology.  It and the other the technologies involved in additive manufacturing, create products by building them up layer by layer. 

On an industrial scale, General Electric is using additive manufacturing to produce parts made of a special alloy that will be used in its LEAP jet engines.1 

Similarly, NASA is testing rocket engine components made using additive manufacturing.  At temperatures approaching 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the 3D printed rocket fuel injectors performed identically to conventionally manufactured parts.  Yet, because the 3D injectors consist of just 2 parts instead of 115, they can be made at half the cost and in one-eighth the time that the old process required.2

Obviously additive manufacturing is paying off for high-end specialized manufacturers in areas like aerospace.  But the question remains, “ Is it living up to the hype in terms of its potential impact on the broader economy?”  To answer that question, consider seven benefits already being realized:

  1. Low cost:  Michigan Technological University Associate Professor Joshua Pearce led a research study that examined the economic impact of 3D printing on an average American household.3  The team selected 20 common household items listed on Thingiverse, then used Google Shopping to identify the lowest and highest online cost of purchasing each item on-line.  The total cost of the 20 items, including cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, and a spoon holder, ranged from $312 to $1,944.  When the team calculated the cost of making the same 20 items on a 3D printer, the results were staggering.  It would cost only $18 to create the items at home over a single weekend...

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