This article is part of a series about Hugo’s visit to ISM2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.
3D printing has been around for 35 years – that’s a lot longer than I’d realised. I was a bit puzzled by this, as to my knowledge people have only been talking about the technology for five years or so. Eric Miller of Phoenix Analysis and Design Technologies tells me that he’d been trying to get the press to pay attention to 3D printing for 20 years, but it wasn’t until “some idiot in Texas printed a 3D plastic gun that blew up in his face” that people finally started paying attention.
I’ve chosen this session to get myself up to speed about the technology basics and try to understand what it’s going to mean for the procurement profession. Miller talks about a “revolution” in prototyping and manufacturing. He says a lot of people are excited by 3D printing but warns against regarding it as a magic box. These printers aren’t the transporter from Star Trek made real, they’re not going to bring every off-shored job back to the US, and they’re not simply about pushing “print” and getting a part – there’s a lot of work that goes on before and after the print. What they are good for, Miller says, is making prototypes, low-volume and custom parts, and tooling creation. They’re a fantastic way to enable low-volume distributed manufacturing – for example, if I create a prototype plastic toy in Australia, I can simply send the computer model to my company’s multiple plants all over the world so they can print exactly the same product.
Why is 3D printing such a big deal?
- It’s equivalent to the leap from the printing press to desktop printing. A 3D printer means we no longer need tooling or specialised machines to create things.
- You no longer need to be a manufacturing expert or own lots of equipment to create an object.
- The industry is growing fast: there’s been 27.3% compound annual growth in the industry over 26 years, 33.8% from 2012–14. This is counting industrial systems only and doesn’t take into account hobby printers (yes, people have hobby 3D printers in their homes).
How does it work?
First of all, you create a mathematical representation of a solid object (a computer model). Miller shows us a mathematical model of a teapot in a CAD or “faceted” (triangle graphics) file. These models can be created by the user or downloaded, then you send it to the printer to make a solid “printout” of that object. The layered manufacturing process begins – the printer takes the mathematical model, its computer slices it into multiple thin layers and the “hand” builds up the object one layer at a time. It can cut the layer, deposit the layer, glue the layer, harden the layer, fuse the layer and more. Miller encourages us to think of this in contrast to the usual way of manufacturing – forging, extruding, machining, moulding and casting.
This was the cool part of Miller’s presentation. In my ignorance I thought there was only one type of 3D printer, but he rapidly ran through no fewer than eight different technologies, namely:
- Layered Object Manufacturing (LOM) – described above. This was the printer type on display at the ISM2015 exhibition hall.
- Stereolithography (SLA) – the first commercially successful technology, involving a fairly nasty chemical that hardens when exposed to an ultraviolet laser.
- Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) – plastic is extruded through a heated nozzle like a glue gun.
- Binding: clear or coloured glue is printed onto a bed of powder – powder types include plastic, sand, gypsum, metal and ceramic.
- Polyjet: prints layers of liquid photopolymer which is then cured with a UV light. Can jet multiple materials in a single print but requires constant upkeep or clogs after every use.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): uses a laser to sinter particles together and uses powder to support. Great for large, durable parts.
- Direct Laser Melting (DLM): like sintering, but more powerful. Uses laser to melt particles together and can use an electron beam (ARCAM). Very high uptake in the aerospace industry.
- Direct Energy Deposition: blows powder into the focal point of multiple laser beams (very cool).
Miller notes that many executives are pushing their engineers and supply chain experts into 3D printing, and advises that you don’t just rush out and buy a printer. Do your research, get advice and find out which printer is right for your organisation.
What’s the future hold for 3D printing?
This is where it gets really exciting. Miller pictures large-scale 3D printers that could create on-demand emergency housing in developing countries or disaster relief, body parts (scaffolding for stem cells and laying down tissue) and personalised medicine such as printing orthopaedics (this could happen today but insurance companies won’t pay for it). He imagines a 3D printer in every school and one at every neighbourhood copy centre. We’ll have 3D printed clothing, 3D printed food, nano-scale devices, and more.
Advice for supply chain professionals dealing with 3D printers
Miller stresses that the first thing to remember is that it’s really no different from any other manufacturing process, with the same rules and requirements applying. This means that supply chain professionals need to establish quality and traceability standards, which can be difficult without understanding the 3D process, planning for it and controlling it. He advises that engineers may try to use this technology to bypass procurement, as parts will be made at the point of use rather than in a distant factory. Scheduling is a big issue, with time needed before the print to prepare the mathematical model and ensure the product has a professional finish afterwards. To be cost-effective, 3D printers need to be run near full-utilisation (i.e. continuously), which will need careful planning.
One foreseeable problem caused by 3D printing is the theft of intellectual property. If a company was able to steal a mathematical model of a branded product such as a Disney toy, this would be a major IP breach. You’d no longer have cheap copies of branded products on the market, but the exact same product printed identically. Miller talks about a Phoenix golf-club manufacturer who hired PADT to create the mathematical representation of a new golf club design, and sent along a security guard to watch the entire process and ensure the file wasn’t copied or leaked. Miller feels that firearms printing isn’t really an issue – it means there will be more unregistered and untraceable firearms on the market, but it’s not as if this isn’t already a problem in the US.
As the session ends I pull out my phone. One of the nifty ideas in play at ISM2015 is the use of QR code feedback cards that you can scan with your QR reader and rate the session. Miller gets top marks.
Founded in 1915, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) is the first and largest supply management association in the world. A not-for-profit association with 47,000+ members and 140+ affiliated organizations around the globe.