3D Printing: From design to object in 30 minutes

April 2015.- 3D technology will radically change current business models in all sorts of industries, thanks to the benefits it provides. For instance, the possibility to print depending on concrete needs, whenever and wherever needed, not only cuts transportation and warehousing costs, but also saves time. The distribution industry will completely change if we’ll be able to send a digital pattern and print the product in question directly at its destination and with all the features we want it to have. This will foster local production and will focus on the design rather than just production, which definitely implies a change in current manufacturing values.

3d technology is nothing new. it’s been around for about 30 years.

3D Printing is the process of joining materials to make objects based on a digital model, putting one layer on top of another, as opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing methods. This term is also associated to printing done at home or in communities. If it is applied to production technologies and supply chains, we often used the term additive or rapid manufacturing (AM, RM)

The additive manufacturing sector worldwide (machines, materials and associated services) was estimated at 1,900 million dollars in 2011 and Hewlett-Packard estimates that it will reach 12,000 million dollars in 2017, based on organic growth and continuous deployment of current technology. However, if some trade and technological barriers are overcome other sources estimate that total sales could reach 100,000 million dollars in 2020. There are segments that grow at rates exceeding 30% per annum and many multinational companies are entering the 3D printing business given the huge expectations regarding its current and future development.

It all started in 1984, when Chuck Hull patented his system in the United States under the name of stereolitography. In 1986, he founded the firm 3D Systems and in 1987 rapid prototyping is already a commercial reality. In 1990, additive manufacturing started to be used for obtaining pit patterns (rapid casting); in 1995, to obtain production tools, especially injection molds (rapid tooling); and in 2000, to obtain production pieces (rapid manufacturing).

After this point, development speeded up: if between 1984 and 2011, 45,000 3D printers were sold in the world, in 2012 the same amount was sold in just one year. 3D printing technology has spread widely over the last 5 years thanks to patent expirations and the consequent price reduction of machines, as well as to progress in investigation and understanding of this kind of technology and the materials it uses, with leading sector companies marketing its advantages on a global level. Furthermore, this manufacturing method has been used to create unexpected and surprising applications, many of which have been widely commented upon on Internet.

Applications and uses

It is still too soon to evaluate the impact of 3D printing, but one thing’s sure: it will have more and more applications and it will develop new business models, both on a small-scale and in larger fields. Printing possibilities go far beyond just normal every-day objects. 3D technology can be used to print food (like the Foodini printer does, created by Natural Machines, a company based in Barcelona) and light components for plans or F-1 cars.

In the biomedical field, 3D technology is already being used to design and produce bone implants and dental prosthesis. There have been some success stories too in the medical scenario, such as the operation to remove a tumour from a child, made possible because doctors could previously practice the extremely difficult operation on a 3D model at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital in Barcelona. Furthermore, scientists and researchers are currently experimenting with the possibility to copy human tissue, organs and cells, which could replace those from sick people. However, these applications are still in a very early phase.

Its main applications are found in the following areas:

  • Food and drink
  • Aeronautics
  • Domestic
  • Automotive
  • Electronics
  • Sports
  • Lighting and furniture
  • Medicine and biology
  • Machinery
  • Fashion, jewellery and footwear
  • Artistic and unique projects

As for materials, AM processes can be classified by the type of material used, by the deposition technique or the way in which the material melts and solidifies. The materials 3D printers can work with are very varied (over 200) and range from organic products (waxes, cells, tissues, food) to metals (aluminium, titanium, stainless steel, etc.), through ceramic materials (graphite, zirconia, etc.) and polymers (ABS, nylon, polycarbonate, etc.). Furthermore, some machines can also combine materials.

Effects on production structures

Additive manufacturing is perfect for low volume productions or for massive personalisation of finished articles. It means designers can undergo activities that previously were considered too complex to produce economically, and this changes the initial structure of the business model. If previously one needed money to move an idea into the industrial production area, additive manufacturing means that initial ideas can be produced extremely economically in order to then obtain financing for them on a large scale.

The downside of additive manufacturing or AM and 3D printing are the potential problems arising out of intellectual property rights (illegal copies), tax issues (taxing collaborative consumption) and product safety (reproducing food products or toys).

If we try to resume the effects of AM on business models in more detail, and bearing in mind the work of Ferràs (2013), Cohen (2014) and other authors, we could make special mention of the following elements:

  • Speeding up of product development cycles
  • Increase of the additive manufacturing of final goods
  • Volatilization of value chains
  • Less requirements of transport for finished products and changes to commercial flows
  • Extension of economic models such as crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer, open source, etc.
  • Fall in entry barriers for new competitors given smaller volumes and niche markets
  • Concentration of all the value in design
  • Fully customised manufacturing
  • Flexible manufacturing, completely just-in-time and with full quality guarantees
  • Total usage of material used

Out of everything involved in additive manufacturing, it appears that the creation of value lies both in the manufacture of machinery and especially in the design of applications, creating new software and the formulation of new materials and their processes of consolidation. There will also be great potential in developing post-processing technologies and superficial surfaces of 3D manufactured parts.

Fab labs in Barcelona

The fab labs are digital manufacturing laboratories, spaces with 3D printers, laser cutters, circuit board printers, etc. that permit digital manufacturing using a 3D design of an object. Today there are 350 in 50 countries around the world. These fabrication laboratories are based on the collaboration between users, who share their knowledge and participate in the production of their own product themselves. This is why fab labs traditionally prefer free software and open-source programming, which is used by consumers who, at the same time, become creators.

Barcelona is one of the most active spots on the worldwide fab labs network. The first Barcelona Fab Lab has been open since 2007 and is now one of the leading members of the network. It is also the headquarters of the Fab Academy, a global campus of local laboratories where students find colleagues and mentors. The City Council is promoting a network of fab labs called Fab Ateneus in order to foster entrepreneurship and job creation. Makers of Barcelona (MOB) or MADE are examples of private fab lab initiatives.

3D printing in Catalonia

Catalonia has an industrial base capable of absorbing new developments and benefit economically in sectors such as these: manufacturers of consumer goods, software development firms, manufacturers of materials (polymers, ceramics, metal and composites), and companies capable of designing and developing applications.

In addition, it has the support, expertise and experience of several research institutions (tech centres and universities), which have been working on additive manufacturing for years. Besides the fab labs, Catalonia has research centres such as the CIM Foundation, LEITAT, ASCAMM, IQS, as well as excellent schools and companies in the video games field that can move towards the 3D printing sector.

Catalonia is an important research-based industrial cluster, which makes it the perfect location to welcome 3D printing-related projects. The presence of manufacturers and producers, software developers and suppliers, and app designers and developers make Catalonia a great place out of which to expand additive printing.

Hewlett Packard (HP) knows everything about printing, and 3D printing wouldn’t be an exception. This is why the international firm decided to open their Global Business Centre in Sant Cugat (only a few kilometres from Barcelona). 

From this plant, HP investigates and works to develop new products, among other activities, in collaboration with universities and technology centres. This is the scenario where HP has designed their 3D printer, the Multijet Fusion, which will be on the market as of 2016.

Barcelona is one of the most active spots on the worldwide fab labs network

3D printers are faster, cheaper and allow you to print objects wherever they are going to be used, the moment they are needed, with all the consequences this implies. 

3D scanners are used to scan an object to get a digital design, then copy it and print it in three-dimensional shape, to get a real life copy of that object.

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