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What’s New in Commercial Uses for 3D Printing?
October 13, 2021
Reading time: 8 minutes
Growth of the 3D printing industry is unlikely to slow down any time soon, with 2020’s market totaling $15.4 billion worldwide and projections for 2024 exceeding $34.9 billion. With more and more companies dipping a toe in the waters of this technology, commercial uses for 3D printing are only as limited as the imagination. Learn how this tech is changing almost every major industry and what you can expect in the near future.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing is the process of using a 3D printer to turn digital files into three-dimensional objects. While the actual production varies among several methods, the most common process uses a roll of string-like filament that is pushed through nozzles, much like ink from an inkjet printer.
The filament material is laid down on the print bed in thin layers, over and over, building on itself, until the entire shape comes to life. Common materials used in 3D printing include PLA, ABS, and nylon, but some even use metal or wood in a particle-board application.
Because the 3D object is created by a continued “adding up” of the layers, it’s considered an “additive” method of creation. Other 3D printers may combine this additive method with a cutting away of material, similar to CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines, also called “subtractive” method.
3D printing materials from HP
Polymers are among the strongest and most versatile materials, and they are now available from HP. The rigid polymer family has applications in auto accessories, robot arms, and assembly fixtures, or anywhere you need durable, inflexible parts with a low cost per part.
Elastomeric 3D printing polymers bring flexibility to your next project, with applications in lab gear, PPE, and specialty parts that need to give under pressure and resist abrasion.
What about 4D printing?
Yes, 4D printing is now happening, too. This type of printing is largely in the research and development phase, and it features time as the “fourth dimension.” Objects printed with 4D characteristics are built to shift to new objects or take on new characteristics over time, usually when subjected to light, heat, or other external conditions.
How business 3D printing differs
In the past, 3D printing was mostly done by tech-obsessed, wealthy hobbyists, or cutting-edge companies. But as it becomes more commonplace and easy to use, every-day businesses have stepped up their 3D printing game to do some exciting things.
What are 3D printers used for in business?
Business printing stands out from both high-end R&D and amateur printing in that it fills many pieces of the production cycle. These include anything from initial prototyping to creating the repair parts that may be used to fix actual products.
An electronics manufacturer, for example, could use 3D printing to make a sample for prototyping and then create an entire line of repair parts for retailers and consumers to self-service their own goods.
3D printing and manufacturing are closely tied, and the method is used for a variety of business niches. Jewelry, collectibles, toys, art, appliance repair, office supplies, and organizational materials companies can all benefit from 3D printing.
It may not be profitable to use 3D printing in large-scale volumes of the same item, but it does make sense for custom, limited-edition products. Plus, you can use it to print products that may not warrant the traditional, molded material method.
3D printing now gives even small businesses a way to better serve their customers’ needs. They can make their own limited-run parts and pieces rather than 1) not providing them at all, or 2) outsourcing to another company where intellectual property concerns or cost may become a problem.
New trends for 3D printing in 2021
3D printing capabilities change every year. And as more businesses incorporate the tech into their processes, expect it to evolve even faster. What are major trends in 3D printing applications for industry? What can we look forward to in the near future? Here are some developments worth keeping an eye on.
1. SLM (selective laser melting)
Until now, one of the most proven methods of 3D printing metals is by using metallic powders, then fusing them together with lasers. The process, called selective laser melting (SLM), is a huge opportunity, but the objects printed are prone to cracks and fissures.
With the development of an additional laser treatment, called laser shock peening (LSP), imperfections and weak spots in the newly-formed metal layers can be fortified. As the object is being built, the LSP laser’s “shock treatment” works in harmony with the SLM laser to create metal structures strong enough for use in everything from aeronautics to wind turbines.
Multi-jet fusion (MJF) technology allows for detailed prints other methods can’t match and carefully layers molten material atop another still molten layer, fusing the two together. This additive method creates particularly intricate builds and the potential for embedded electronic circuitry.
Popular in the automotive industry due to its ability to support high-volume metal products with a low per-piece cost, Metal Jet Printing has created a space for everything from custom Key-fobs to impeller parts that previously needed to be created through a more costly casting process. Metal jet supports small-scale detailing and with the strength of common metals.
2. Printing of super magnets
Super magnets are an integral part of today’s machines. They’re used in electric motors, wind power stations, and numerous other applications. The current molding process is limited in how detailed each magnet can get because these often-tiny magnets must be made to exact specifications in order to work properly. With the magnetic material ground down into powdered form, 3D printers can create them through SLM, allowing more flexibility and intricacy of design than ever before.
3. Liquid integrations
Current 3D printing tech allows for some customizations as the build is taking place, such as coloring, which often occurs with liquid hues that are heated just long enough to be extracted but solidify upon cooling. The latest in liquid integrations make even more fluid types possible.
While it’s in the early stages, scientists are also testing ways for pharmaceutical drugs to be integrated into solid builds. Manufacturers can add luminous materials, as well, which have the potential to reveal structural damage to a product over time.
4. Advances in 3D printed food
Custom-printed chocolates and pizza are making their way into homes and restaurants through the magic of 3D printed food. Soon, we may see meat alternatives printed into meat-like shapes for those who want to avoid eating meat.
Another exciting reality? Nutritious food supplements that taste, smell, and look like actual foods, so they’re more likely to be consumed. Food can look like anything you want, thanks to 3D printing possibilities.
5. Changes in the beauty and cosmetics industry
3D printing may just ensure that form and function co-exist in new ways within the beauty industry. The tech prompted an innovative mascara brush, which is designed to be more comfortable for the eye. Expect more beauty brands to follow Chanel’s lead of going all-in on 3D tech with razors, hairstyles, and even piercing trends seeing the potential.
6. Medical and life-saving trends
There are some amazing new trends in 3D-printed insteps for orthotics, but could there be even more to come? How about solutions that empower patients and boost longevity? So much is happening in this space, and it’s just a matter of time before “replacement parts” for the human body are just another day's work for the 3D engineer. Prosthetics are one category taking 3D printing to the ceiling. Could heart valves or tracheas be close behind?
7. DIY supplies
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces more consumers to fix things themselves, 3D printing can bridge the gap and help recoup some of the revenue lost when consumers don't bring appliances or items in for repair.
Selling 3D printed parts along with instructions, such as a custom video or a printed guide, can help give customers what they want in this socially-distanced world. It’s also another revenue stream for manufacturers who don’t want their customers buying knock-off replacement parts from third-party sellers.
Benefits of 3D printing for companies
There truly is no way to tell which of the upcoming 3D printing developments will offer the best ROI, but these advantages make it worthwhile to consider adding 3D tech to your repertoire.
1. Cost savings
What can 3D printing do to sweeten your bottom line? Companies are already using these printers to cut the price of parts shipping and inventory requirements since you can print just what you need and reduce overhead on custom-items.
There's also a significant benefit in prototyping your own new products compared to outsourcing. If you 3D print instead of using a mold or cutaway method, you'll potentially go through less raw materials and produce less waste.
2. Time savings
It can take weeks or even months to send off prototype specs to a specialized company, get the model back, and continue refining the outcomes to get just the right prototype. Why deal with all the back and forth when you can just do it all in-house in less time? Plus, you'll get the added benefit of keeping your intellectual property with you at all times.
3. Durability improvements
3D printing isn’t what it once was, and new materials mean the sky’s the limit on creating a solid structure that looks good and lasts longer. Rapid changes in manufacturing mean customers will expect products to reflect the best of materials available, and 3D printing can offer solutions to these demands without reinventing entire manufacturing lines.
It’s hard to see what the future holds with 3D printing because it advances so rapidly. Researchers (like the ones who discovered liquid integration) will show us what’s possible. Then, it’s up to keen business minds to determine if it’s a profitable risk to use new tech as it’s developed.
Even for the cautious adopter, it’s wise to keep your eyes on the world of 3D printing. Watch for changes that could solve your most pressing issues, potentially at a lower cost and with less hassle than the way you’re doing it now.
About the Author: Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.
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