The Playing Field: Major Industries Using Additive Manufacturing Today
Article by Bettina Warburg
Many analysts and executives see additive manufacturing (3D printing), as perhaps the most revolutionary manufacturing technology today. Firms are already using it to great effect for a wide range of applications throughout several different industries. Here is what you need to know about how some of our major industries are deploying this revolutionary modern technology.
Additive manufacturing’s produces light, strong parts with complex geometries, which makes it an ideal technology for the aerospace industry. Additive manufacturing applications in the aerospace industry range from creating surrogate parts for training and education to manufacturing lightweight antenna brackets for satellites.
Increasingly, the aerospace industry sees a trend toward the creation of structural parts with additive manufacturing technology. In 2017, aerospace giant Boeing received FAA approval to use 3D-printed titanium parts in its 787 Dreamliner jet. Boeing projects that this could save them as much as $3 million in production costs per airplane. This is thanks to the reduced material waste associated with additive manufacturing. Airbus, meanwhile, has been able to manufacture lighter cabin dividing walls using additive manufacturing tools.
Oil and Natural Gas
The oil and natural gas industry is among the leading implementers of 3D printing technology. Additive manufacturing has so far been used to create both improved turbines for drilling rigs and more efficient control valves. The ability to create complex geometries that are stronger and lighter has been a key advantage over traditional manufacturing methods.
One of the reasons that the oil and gas industry has invested heavily in 3D printing is that oil extraction sites are often remote and difficult to service. Offshore oil rigs, for instance, can experience significant downtime while waiting for spare parts to arrive. By equipping drilling rigs with additive manufacturing systems, oil and gas companies may very soon be able to reduce lead times for parts by manufacturing them on-demand at the sites where they will be used.
Vehicle manufacturers have been at the forefront of implementing additive manufacturing technology. One of the most prolific additive manufacturing applications in the automotive world is in rapid prototyping. This is also among the oldest uses of the technology, with some large auto manufacturers having prototyped parts with 3D printers for more than 20 years.
But beyond prototyping, automotive manufacturers are now increasingly bringing it into use for actual production. The Ford Motor Company, for instance, has implemented the technology to create spoilers for its performance racing vehicles. The company has also filed a patent application for a process that would allow brake discs to be created using 3D printers. Likewise, General Motors has turned to additive manufacturing to produce lightweight parts that could help make its electrical vehicles more efficient.
A handful of automotive startups have sought to push the boundaries of additive manufacturing one step further. Local Motors, an Arizona-based startup, began the move toward fully 3D-printed production cars with its LM3D Swim. More recently, Los Angeles startup Divergent premiered a 3D-printed sports car dubbed the Blade that features a 700-horsepower electric motor and weighs just 1,400 pounds.
The automotive industry has also identified a role for this technology in supplying spare parts for vehicles. At the moment, this application of the technology is mostly used to create otherwise unavailable parts for classic and antique vehicles. However, a recent test program conducted by Daimler Trucks North America illustrated the capacity that additive manufacturing also has to provide spare parts more quickly for current production vehicles.
Since adopting the technology, the medical industry has found numerous applications for additive manufacturing, improving care quality and reducing costs. The most prominent example of the role 3D printing is playing in modern healthcare is perhaps the creation of extremely low-cost prosthetic hands. Patients can now have prosthetic hands made for about $50, where once they would have cost $5,000 or more. Thanks to their customized fitting, 3D-printed prosthetics are considerably more comfortable than their traditional counterparts. This means that patients receive both improved quality of life and a vastly lower cost.
Prosthetic limbs, however, are far from the only application of additive manufacturing in the healthcare industry. Other major medical uses of the technology include:
- Creating true-to-life organ replicas for surgical planning
- Prototyping new surgical tools
- Creating nearly invisible orthodontic aligners at extremely low costs
- Printing advanced orthopedic devices
The medical industry has also been developing an entirely new type of additive manufacturing. This new technology, known as bioprinting, involves applying the principles of standard additive manufacturing to the printing of living tissue cultures. In bioprinting, printers deposit layers of nutrient-dense gels infused with live cells. These cells can reproduce themselves to form a complete tissue. This technology is not yet in full commercial use but it represents an exciting new application for additive manufacturing. This could soon transform tissue transplants, drug testing and many other aspects of medicine.
The construction industry uses additive manufacturing to produce inexpensive, high-detail models to assist in the planning phase of projects. Architects and construction professionals have always used such models, but with additive manufacturing models that would once have required several days to produce can be printed in a day or less and changed quickly as needed.
Construction firms have a made a longterm goal of using additive manufacturing to construct full-size houses. Companies are working to accomplish this by creating machines that can build up cement layer-by-layer on- site. In an early test of the technology, a manufacturer printed a 409-square-foot house in a small town in Russia for a total cost of just $10,134. More recently, a family in France became the first to actually move into a 3D-printed house. As the technology continues to develop, it is likely to become a major driving force in providing low-cost housing solutions. And soon we will have a chance to test this application of additive manufacturing on a large scale. The city of Dubai recently announced an ambitious initiative to have 25 percent of its new buildings 3D-printed by the year 2025.
Why Are So Many Industries Adopting Additive Manufacturing?
Tying all of these disparate industries together are a handful of common advantages additive manufacturing has over traditional manufacturing methods. These advantages include reduced labor costs, streamlined logistics, and a production process independent of a centralized factory. Under the right conditions, additive manufacturing can also offer significant environmental benefits, though this advantage is contingent upon factors such as the specific materials and devices being used.
Because of these advantages, soon more and more industries will begin using additive manufacturing as part of their business models. Researchers and entrepreneurs find new applications every day and rapid technological advancement in the field promises more to come.
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