3D printing is a powerful medium of communication
3D printing can be useful when talking to a customer, vendor, student or as a concept proof. It is applicable in several industries including engineering, aerospace, automotive, medical and entertainment.
We will explore the different communication methodologies in brief, below:
1. Showing a solution is better than showing a problem
3D printing a sample is quite useful when you are helping a customer with prototyping.
CAD diagrams do not always help to visualize important points. You may want to change the design to improve specifications, performance or manufacturability.
Printing out an actual part will help to prove your point more elegantly than any other method.
Here is an example. The customer wanted a reflector that would reflect on one side and be opaque on the other. He wanted to increase the wall thickness and/or paint a dark color on the outside to ensure opacity.
With 3D printing, we were able to show him a simpler solution. We printed a sample reflector. The reflector had shiny white ABS on the inside for reflectivity and black ABS on the outside for opacity. This helped us to convince customer since he could try it out and confirm it works for him.
2. Explain complexity better with a real life example
You would like to show the customer the simplicity of 3D printing. Handling complex shapes, reducing the number of parts and weight is all part of a day’s job. Try printing the part and show to the customer. A print can say a thousand stories.
Often customers do not appreciate the ability of 3D printing to handle complexity. Printing the part will help to convince the customer that it helps him to (a) handle complexity, (b) reduce weight and (c) reduce costs.
In this case, the customer wanted to connect a hexagonal shaft to a circular shaft coaxially. In the normal course, he would have used a coupler and by either milling and/or spark erosion on both sides, would have fitted the two shafts. This involves lots of machining time as well as material wastage.
With 3D printing, we were able to print and show him a coupler that could connect the two different shaped shafts in a clean way. One look at the actual sample made the customer agree to our proposal.
3. Bringing out the features with colors
Traditional manufacturing involves making a part out of a single material and single color. With 3D printing, one can print many colored parts in one go.
Imagine a scenario of a surgeon seeing a printed organ such as a heart or a kidney. With 3D printing, it is possible to use multiple colors to bring out the features of the organ.
A team of researchers in Dublin headed by Dr.Michelle Smith did exactly that last year. They printed out a full-color model of a patient’s heart to help the surgeons prepare for a heart transplant.
Image Source: https://3dprint.com/88586/color-coded-heart-model/
4. 3D printing can help teaching and training
3D printing is one of the best ways to teach and train students. The students understand better if they see a physical model. Medical instructors typically use cadavers to explain the mechanics of the human body. With recent improvements in lifestyle and affluence, cadavers are now in short supply.
Researchers at Monash got around the scarcity of cadavers by 3D printing body parts like hands. This is an excellent proof that 3D printing can be used for communication.
Monash University’s Michelle Quayle shows off part of the Printed Anatomy Series kit
5. Make scale models of your projects to prove feasibility
3D printing can be a wonderful tool to prove that your concept works. Actual scale models of proposed structures can be 3D printed and tested out. This helps to confirm load bearing and buildability.
Architects and model builders rely heavily on 3D printing to prove their concepts. In the case of traditional manufacturing, 3D printing can serve as a proof of concept. This will help to speed up project funding.
3D printing is not just a cost or time-saving method. It is also a powerful communication medium. Effective use of 3D printing can help to significantly improve communication.
Situations where subtractive manufacturing edges out 3D printing
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the top 9 reasons to adopt 3D printing. But, additive manufacturing is not always a blessing. There are situations where 3DP will not be able to match the advantages of traditional subtractive manufacturing methods.
This is partly due to the fact that 3D printing is not (yet) a mature enough mainstream technology. It cannot meet several challenges that traditional subtractive manufacturing processes use. The other part is the huge learning curve that is involved in starting to use 3D printing. It’s not insurmountable. But it’s not really for the faint hearted.
Huge potential lies ahead for 3D printing.
Don’t get me wrong; I am all for additive manufacturing/3D printing. Wohlers’ Associates, the respected industry analyst reported in April 2016:
the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, consisting of all AM products and services worldwide, grew 25.9% (CAGR) to $5.165 billion in 2015. The CAGR for the previous three years was 31.5%. Over the past 27 years, the CAGR for the industry is an impressive 26.2%.
That is an exciting growth history!
Let us examine briefly the reasons why 3D printing is still not a great solution in some situations and how this is changing.
1. Design principles are different for additive and subtractive manufacturing.
3D printing can surmount the shortcomings of subtractive manufacturing. However, this requires designers to see that 3D printing needs a different type of design.
3DP allows designers to try out totally new designs that would not have been possible earlier. If the designer lacks imagination and just tries to print his existing design with a 3D printer, he will not be able to extract all the benefits that 3DP offers.
Traditional manufacturing breaks down designs into small components for manufacturability. Whereas, 3D printing can print multiple sub-assemblies in one go. For example, if you design bricks in traditional manufacturing, you could design entire walls and print them in one go with 3D printing. Designers have to tune in to the new paradigm, which often is not the case.
2. Production costs with 3D printing are much higher compared to traditional manufacturing.
This is influenced by several factors:
2a. Machine setup complexity
The quality of the print out depends on how well the machine is calibrated. This includes setting parameters for bed leveling, bed temperature, nozzle temperature, Tg of the material used, in fill percentage and several other such factors. The current crop of consumer 3D printers run out of calibration pretty fast and recalibration is a long drawn process. And if you have a mixed lot of products to make, it increases the complexity of calibration by an order of magnitude.
2b. Trial runs and wastage
Every DIY 3D printer knows about how many times he needs to iterate and how much of material gets wasted before a decent print out can emerge.
2c. Material cost
The cost of filaments available today (considering the fact that FDM is still the most commonly used type) is still prohibitive. Especially if you tend to buy filaments in small lots, it is just not possible to meet the costs of a mass produced product. As the saying goes, if you could buy it at Walmart for $5, why would you spend a few weeks of your time and countless reprints in order to eventually get a reasonable reproduction at 3 to 5X of the cost?
2d. Production time
What takes an injection molding tool a few minutes to spit out, could take several hours in a 3D printing tool. This is still a big disadvantage for implementing full scale production with additive manufacturing.
3. Post processing is an extra process step with 3D printing.
Traditional manufacturing can churn out products with little or no finishing required. This is because injection molding has been there for such a long time that most users have figured out how to get finished products without having to baby them. 3D printing has not reached that stage yet. Because of the inherent nature of printing in layers, imperfections are visible quite clearly regardless of the nozzle size used. This means sanding, blowing and painting before the product is ready for shipment.
There have been a few printers recently, the prominent one being Rize One, that claim reduced or no post processing thus greatly improving one of the major drawbacks of 3D printing. Rize One is expected to be commercially available later this year.
4. Repeatability is still not good enough.
3D printing is still not good enough to make products with high repeatability. Jet printing tools have much higher repeatability but the average run of the mill FDM tool printing out plastic parts leaves repeatability much to be desired. So critical applications where repeatability is important are still shying away from 3D printing.
5. 3D printers are still prohibitively expensive.
The situation in the current crop of available 3D printing tools is that if you need reliable high quality repeatable printing, you need to shell out at least a few hundred K $ for a tool. This needs to change. Hopefully with higher demand for such tools and expiry of patents, more players will come in to offer higher quality printers at lower costs.
6. Usability may restrict applications for 3D printing.
If you try printing a spoon with 3D printing, you would realize that the spoon has lots of striations where food particles could go and lodge themselves, leading to bacterial growth. ABS is not BPA free. Several materials such as PLA (Polylactic acid) are not suitable for dishwashing. So 3D printing everyday usable stuff that could be used in homes still has a long way to go.
7. Compelling applications that can drive the usage of mainstream 3D printing are still not there.
The killer use case is still beyond the horizon. There is not yet a revolutionary use case where 3D printing will beat out all other competition for its advantages. There are a few applications in aerospace where weight reduction is a big benefit but none in the mainstream applications so far. It’s a black swan and it’s somewhere out there. It’s more a question of when than if.
9 reasons to adopt 3D printing
Thousands of companies world over are deploying additive manufacturing processes through 3D printing services. This helps them to address challenging engineering problems as well as open up new business opportunities. We examine 3 broad segments, which get impacted with the adoption of 3D printing.
Design can take on more complexity
Product designers are now challenged with the necessity to take on a new avatar, relearning all they learnt so far.
1. Manufacturability made easy by reducing process steps
The traditional manufacturing process, for example, of a sub-assembly or in layman’s terms a part for a product, involves taking into account “Design for Assembly” (DFA) and “Design for Manufacturing”(DFM). Any major design acceptance involves thoroughly evaluating DFA and DFM. With 3D printing, the traditional “design->tool->mold->prototype->tool->mold-> prototype->make->assemble” model is thrown out. The new paradigm is about “design-print-prototype-test-tool-mold-make”. Since most of the tooling and mold requirements are postponed until the final iteration, the leadtime and costs of prototyping get reduced by an order of magnitude.
2. Shape complexity not an issue
The limitations of subtractive manufacturing techniques restrained the pre-3dp designers from taking advantage of complex shapes for improving product performance parameters such as structural, thermal, optical, conductive, mechanical, etc. With 3dp, designers can address this issue, whether it is for ducts for wiring/lubrication, screw holes or any other complex cavity inside the shape.
3. Designs can be optimized for performance
An optimized design should be able to provide the best measurable performance under given manufacturing constraints. Design optimization algorithms typically analyze the relationship between different variables using linear and non-linear programming techniques. 3D printing is able to remove several of these constraints such that design optimization is much faster, as it gives several more options to designers.
Manufacturing can be more agile
Manufacturing takes on a new dimension by being empowered to try designs that have not been possible to be manufactured before.
4. Weight Reduction is not just for aircraft
Several industries can benefit from weight reduction and 3D printing can enable weight reduction by controlling “fill” parameters. Example – Weight reduction in End of Arm Fixture (EOAF) can reduce a robot’s payload requirements.
Reducing the weight of the EOAF enables the assembly process to use robots with lower weight handling capability. 3D printed components with reduced weights is a possible way to reduce weights of robotic arms. Also lower payload robots cost less.
5. Reliability of fixtures with design integration
Subtractive manufacturing may require several process steps for products with inner cavities – including machining, drilling, etc. 3D printing takes away several of these multiple steps in one fell swoop and enables the company to design and print the whole product with cavities and all in one step. Integration of multiple process steps as part of an intrinsic design enhances the reliability of the product and also brings in more design options.
6. Low cycle times to catch windows of opportunity
This is one of the best advantages of 3d printing. It gives the NPI team the ability to iterate multiple times to test design validity since 3D printing has short cycle times and does not need expensive tools and molds to be ordered. The entire prototyping cycle is shortened and helps in giving a working product to marketing and sales teams, so that they can catch windows of opportunity.
7. Material mix and match
Where parts have multiple materials or materials of different colors, traditional manufacturing has to design them as separate parts and assemble them inline. 3D printing enables the designer to think more creatively and design a product with multiple materials, colors and shapes and to print it in a single process step.
Marketing can take on more challanges
Marketing and Sales can take on new challenges when their upstream processes use 3D printing – opportunities that they could not address earlier.
8. Manage short life cycle products
Luxury product trends are changing. High fashion products have very short life cycles. Product models change very fast and there are infinite variations. 3D printing allows quick design changes and customization.
9. Low volume runs and Test Marketing
In subtractive manufacturing, regardless of the volume of the products, necessary costs have to incurred for molds and tooling. 3D printing takes away these onerous costs and enables manufacturers to address opportunities with small volumes. Designers would therefore have to be ingenious enough to adopt 3d printing and work with a revised workflow in order to be able to let their company be successful.
The King is Dead! Long live the King!
3D printing or Additive Manufacturing, as it is formally called, became hugely popular amongst hobbyists, enthusiasts & aficionados during the past 5 years. Over the years, there was a flourishing DIY culture and there were several domestic users of 3D printing who made toys and lego bricks and jewellery and such.
The current year is seeing a new trend emerging. There is a rising professional consumer and business user market which is more demanding and is starting to try out demanding applications on a micro scale.
I would like to analyse different reasons why the shift in trend is happening. Comments are welcome.
1. Hobbyists and consumers are fickle
Consumers typically jump on to any trending bandwagon and try it out. But a huge majority of them do not have the necessary process rigor or discipline to master the intricacies of a technology that is not yet mature enough to be able to support novices.
When a business is developing a product, it takes at least 3 iterations and several rounds of testing before the product is sent to production. (see graphic below)
3D printing is still nascent and requires enormous patience for set up and design integrity. Most home users and hobbyists do not put in the required level of trials in order to get a final successful working product.
2. The chasm still needs to be crossed
Technology adoption cycles are more successful in businesses than in consumer markets. Geoffrey Moore describes the adoption cycle very elegantly in his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers”. Moore classifies typical adopters into 5 buckets – the Innovators, the Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority and the Laggards.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The most difficult part for a technology to cross over (the chasm) is between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority. The technology adoption cycle as described in the book still works as we can see from what is happening to the 3D printing industry. A majority of the Early Adopters have moved on to other pastures and the chasm is still to be crossed.
The “chasm-crossing” will happen when a significant number of early adopters (essentially professional and business users) drive the industry such that more of such kind will start adopting the technology and grow into an early majority.
3. CHANGE IS AROUND THE CORNER
The industry is going through a metamorphosis that has happened to similar industries. More serious players are coming in. Hewlett Packard, Xerox, GE and other big names have already entered or are close to entering the market. These companies are well established in the B2B market and understand the dynamics of this market well.
When the big boys enter the market, they will come in with focus on serving business customers and this will in turn help a whole new playing field to develop around 3D printing B2B.
4. Businesses buy again for scaling
It is an obvious fact that more business users tend to go for repeat purchases than consumers. Consumers may buy just one printer to play around with it. Business users, when they find their printer to be useful for their businesses, would buy more of the same or more powerful versions in order to scale up on their business models.
3D Printer makers find that there is repeat business potential in B2B business as compared to consumer markets. B2B also makes higher margins and helps the market to consolidate. To cite an example, 3D Systems recently announced end of life for its consumer printer, the Cube.
5. More applications in multi materials
More demanding applications such as metal and ceramic do not have too many B2C applications. They are demanding, expensive and subject to rigid process discipline – qualities that an enthusiast typically doesn’t have.
While the industry already has a plethora of 3D printers that can handle plastics, the serious metal printers are where there is still bang for the buck – for the printer maker as well as for the business user.
There will be more serious entrants into the fray in the coming years and that will be good for the customers.
DOES THIS MEAN THERE IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT? ALL IS NOT (YET) WELL IN THE OK CORRAL
The gunfight goes on, and we will wait to see who emerges from the dust out there. In the meantime, serious players continue to woo business customers. The road is long and winding, and will only let the real ones standing at the end. This is good for the industry. And I’m glad this is happening.
As always there are differing views. All of us (including me) are making informed guesses based on currently available data. Several sources support my view but there are others who differ too. Here are some links, if you would like to read more on the subject:
Fortune Magazine: Differs slightly from my view. However they’re talking about consumer products made with 3D printing. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Investing News: Supports my view.
Stratasys Consulting: Stratasys Consulting is the consulting arm of the 3D printer maker Stratasys. In this article you can see an argument put forth that consumer demand pull and not technology push will help to grow the consumer 3D printer market. I find that take interesting too.
Vox.com: More support for my views.
Title photo credit: CreativeTools.se at flickr
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3MF will take over from the STL format as the de facto 3D print design file format eventually. This initiative is being backed by giants such as Microsoft, General Electric and 3D Printer majors such as Stratasys and 3D systems. As such there is no doubt that the format will gain wide adoption as well as have adequate support resources to keep it updated and maintained to take care of future developments. If you are planning to buy a new 3D printer, it now makes sense to find out if the printer supports 3MF format or not.
STL is a streolithography file format that was created by 3D systems in the early ‘80s for 3D priting. That’s how long 3D printing has been around by the way.
Wikipedia says there are several backronmys (acronyms invented after that fact) on STL including Standard Triangle Language and Standard Tesselation language.
The very fact that the STL file format has stood the test of time over nearly a quarter of a century and is the most prevalent file format in today’s additive manufacturing space, speaks enough about the file format. It has been the backbone of 3D printing for more than 2 decades now.
The Basic STL File:
The basic STL file is an ASCII format file (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). What this means is that the STL file is written in simple text and can be created with any text editor. It does not require to be written in any programming languages or compiled into an encrypted file. You can open an STL file in any text editor and see its contents. So the first best quality of STL files is simplicity.
An STL file simply describes the raw unstructured triangulated surface using a 3 dimensional Cartesian co-ordinate system. (A Cartesian coordinate system defines a point as 0 and then measures each point on how far along and how far up it is from the point defined as 0. This is different as compared to a Polar coordinate system where each point is marked as how far away it is from the origin (or 0) and what its angle is.)
So when it comes to a 3D Cartesian coordinate, we need to describe every point as how far away it is from the origin, with reference to length, width and height. I guess you get the point about 3D coordinates.
Coming back to STL file format, it describes only the surface geometry of a 3D object, without taking into account other characteristics of the object such as texture, color, reflectivity, incidence of light, etc. used in a typical 3D cad software.
To sum up what we’ve learnt so far: An STL file is a simple text file. It specifies the 3D co-ordinates of the features of an object (or in other words the surface geometry) in simple terms.
The simplicity has been both the strength as well as the weakness of the STL file format. Strength, in the sense that it is easy, elegant and simple to understand. Also since it is in text format, the file size can be smaller compared to compiled files.
There are several structural stipulations of the STL file format including how parameters are defined, syntaxes to be used, etc. When all these stipulations are strictly followed, it becomes straight forward for any application or printer to understand the meaning of each STL file and react accordingly. The STL file format is almost universally adopted across applications and devices in the 3D printing world.
So an STL file is simple, it describes the 3D property of an object conforming to the strict syntax of the file spec and has near universal adoption. What that term means is that almost everyone in 3D cad world uses STL file format, they understand it and they know how to talk to and pass back information to and fro using the correct syntax.
The STL file format has also spawned sufficient clones in its long life time, where people have tried to include additional information such as color. These variations do co-exist with the STL file format but are more proprietary. Interchange of these proprietary formats is not very common.
Limitations of the STL format:
In spite of being a text only format, the STI file can become quite huge when objects whose surface geometries are being described in such files, become bigger and bigger. This is because more and more triangles need to be added in order to form bigger objects and to cater to the complexity of the shapes of the object being designed.
As we discussed earlier, an STL file format only describes the spatial geometry of an object. It normally does not define other parameters such as color, etc. though some manufacturers have customised some of their STL files to add additional color information. These are not the puritans, though. An STL file conforming to the original spec should limit itself to describing the shape of an object and does not heed the relevance of other parameters.
All faces need to be closed in an STL file, in order for correct definition of an object. If there are two objects touching each other, then both these objects need to be designed separately, and should contain in two different STL files. Also when a single object has multiple materials, each material needs a separate STL file.
3MF (or 3D Manufacturing Format) is a file format that was originally developed by Microsoft and its partners in order to meet the requirement of supporting 3D printing for current and future needs. The initial version of the 3MF code was created by Microsoft and its partners and this work in progress was donated to the 3MF consortium to serve as a source which could be refined further.
The goal of 3MF is to be able to include all the information of a 3D model in a single file. This includes basic Cartesian coordinates, materials, texture, color and a way to make printers understand this information.
To quote the 3MF Consortium, the 3MF file format is
… rich enough to fully describe a model, retaining internal information, color, and other characteristics
… extensible so that it supports new innovations in 3D printing
… able to be broadly adopted
… free of the issues besetting other widely used file formats
The code to read or write 3MF is available as open source: Microsoft’s donated code reads STL/OBJ/3MF, writes 3MF, and can use Web Services for model repair. The source code will be on Github and cross-platform code is in development.
The 3MF Consortium manages the changes to the official 3MF spec, including the acceptance process for changes coming from consortium members and from open source changes. Eventually, conformance will also be addressed by the 3MF Consortium.”
Recent News on 3MF:
March 2016: The 3MF consortium released its first update (Ver.1.1) to the 3MF core specification.
June 2016: American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) recently signed a liaison agreement with the 3MF consortium to explore ways to collaborate and align standards and roadmaps.
The website of 3MF consortium (consisting of members such as 3D Systems Stratasys, Microsoft, General Electric, Dassault Systems, Siemens, Autodesk, etc.)
The open source platform for supporting 3MF format.
The 3MF specification document is available as a download from this url.
Article on 3D print magazine, about library development for 3MF.
Microsoft Developer Network namespace for 3D printing and APIs for 3D printers.