3D Printing Raching the Masses
Enhancing Traditional Manufacturing, Not Replacing It
The growth of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping, is often compared to the initial growth of the computer industry. Both technologies have been around for more than thirty years, but unlike computers, 3D printing has yet to work its way into our everyday lives. While it must be acknowledged that the industry is growing, that growth isn’t exponential in size or speed.
Are the industry’s limitations impeding its ability to move beyond novelty and become as commonplace as laptops and iPads?
We’d love to predict the future of 3D printing and hypothesize that there will be a printer in every home in America by 2017, but Halo Technologies has a more impactful purpose beyond simply scaling the technology. It’s our job to present the facts and find solutions to common problems using what we know.
- Can 3D printing successfully accommodate various needs while still working alongside traditional manufacturing methods?
- What are its current limitations and how can we overcome them?
In a recent case study, we watched the two worlds of traditional manufacturing and 3D printing collide in ways we never could have imagined.
In fact: We stumbled upon this solution by accident. This particular case study taught us that 3D printing doesn’t have to replace traditional manufacturing but instead can complement it. We also learned that 3D printing isn’t always about necessity because, sometimes, clients just want 3D printed parts for the wow factor.
The “Boat Show” Case Study
Recently, a client approached us about 3D printing exterior air vents while we attended a local boat show (and the term boat doesn’t do these vessels justice because they’re more like mega yachts). It’s important to note that this request was out of the ordinary. The client specifically approached us about recreating a specific vent type, but often, we’re approached in regard to “prototyping.” This was a rare instance in which we were singled out to 3D print specific parts.
Beyond the unusual request, these vents weren’t the user friendly, bite-sized vents you have in your home. They were custom vents specially designed for a custom yacht, and nothing about this job would be standard or “off the shelf ready.” The smallest of the vents in question was more than 3 feet in length and 2 feet in diameter.
The client was mainly interested in these vents because the current steel versions required an excessive amount of upkeep. Due to saltwater corrosion, the vents needed to be sanded and repainted on a constant basis, and even after repair still looked out of place compared to the pristine nature of the rest of the yacht.
…below the surface of the client’s maintenance needs, it turns out the yacht owner had a vested interest in 3D printing from his professional experience in construction. He thought it’d be neat to tell people his ship consisted of parts made via 3D printing.
With the needs of the maintenance crew and the personal interest of the owner in mind, 3D printing seemed like the perfect alternative for the client. But after an initial assessment, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
On the very first pass over the vents, it was clear that our in-house printing abilities at the time would be limited. We were in the process of acquiring one of the largest commercial 3D printers in Florida but the machine hadn’t arrived yet. So we informed the client we’d research various printing options and get back to them with a quote.
A Huge Expense
We reviewed several quotes, all of which had an average price tag of $50,000 for just a quarter of the vents needed. This quote price was without any markup. We expected a hefty price because the part was intended for a custom yacht, but considering the steel vents could be purchased for under $50, it would be difficult to justify a $50,000 spend for only a quarter of the job.
A More Traditional Option
In an effort to open up more options, we asked the client if they’d be open to using more traditional materials for the portions of the vents that couldn’t be completely 3D printed. They were open to the idea, and with the green light, we set to work on a final solution.
Once we started the job, we realized that, due to how the vents were constructed in both the stock design and the 3D printing digital file, there were parts that could fit on our print beds and there were parts that could not. Regardless of how hard we tried, there were strength issues getting in the way.
To combat the issue, we 3D printed all of the parts that could fit on our bed size, and for the parts that were too large, we created them using traditional materials.
Could this fusion of old and new technologies work, be fully functional, and look presentable on a luxury yacht? In order to find out, we had to build a prototype.
A Mix of Two Industries
We needed a material that was well suited for marine application, compatible with the 3D printing materials we planned to use (either PLA or ABS), and within our assigned budget. Once we acquired the material, the traditionally manufactured parts were the easiest to plan because they only required a simple measure and cut job. The 3D printed parts posed a greater challenge because they had far more cuts than the traditional material parts and their accuracy would be the determining factor in the finished vent’s fit, quality, and strength.
Our team went through several iterations of these parts until we landed on ones that fit within our printing capabilities while also maintaining the durability and strength compatibility with our other materials. After some exhaustive work, we created a prototype we felt was suitable for client approval.
After an initial test fit and demonstration, the client approved the vents for full production, and we moved forward with the remaining order.
A Final Solution
In this scenario, both 3D printing and traditional printing had limitations concerning the complexity of hand cuts and accuracy. Neither method was better than the other, but the combination of both was greater than what each could have accomplished on its own. By combining the old manufacturing methods with the modern innovation of 3D printing, we were able to fuse together the benefits of both and create parts that were accurate, cost-effective, replicable, stronger and faster to produce.
In order to propel 3D printing forward and incorporate it into the standard manufacturing processes of various industries, we have to look past the obvious and present our clients with a plethora of options.
It’s our goal at Halo Technologies to find solutions born from the intersection of traditional manufacturing challenges and 3D printing.
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