Welcome to Episode 204 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our topic this week, we’re going to look at how 3D printing is moving from the prototyping stage into production. To be a little bit more clear about that, additive fabrication is used in a great many industries for creating prototypes of products that are used to determine whether the product can make it or break it in the market.
Up until now, that’s been the primary usage of 3D printing is to create these prototypes, which is not to say that 3D printing is not used in production at all, but in the Financial Times this week, I saw an article that the threshold, the 50% threshold had been breached. We are now at 60% of the moneys being spent on additive fabrication, 3D printing, are now going towards production-related applications. That’s significant for a number of reasons, which we’ll get into in the episode.
I thought it would be fun to start with some of the examples of 3D printing applications that are going into production. We’ll start with something I found very unexpected, which was GE is actually 3D printing a piece of one of their jet engines, which to me seems, that’s a mission critical kind of thing. A jet engine part, if that breaks …
Yes, or whatever the problem is in flight, you have some serious un-rectifiable problems. For GE to be using additively manufactured part in their jet engines says to me that at least over at GE, that process is mature now. What is particularly interesting about GE’s use is the way the part is put together, it’s really meant to be fabricated in this way.
I think it would take some like 16 different types of welds to put this part together. This is a part that would be difficult to create in a traditional manufacturing environment. This part is designed and fabricated in such a way that it’s really meant to be 3D printed. That’s something to watch out for because it’s enabling engineers and designers to come up with new ways of creating these parts. It’s taking some of the restrictions off that otherwise the manufacturing process would confine them, right?
Engineers and designers may have more room to run now as they’re creating these jet engines over at GE. That’s one that I found particularly interesting. Let’s go from the amazing to the truly mundane. Another 3D printing application for production is for dental wear or the … What do you call those?
Well, the retainers. That’s the word I was looking for.
Those are custom fit, very important to get them right, but I know this because my dentist does this now. He says, “They’re 3D printing these now.” You can go from the custom fit scan of your mouth to a retainer that really does exactly what needs to be done for you. The turnaround time is much quicker than how they might have done that previously.
This is another area where customization, so we talked about taking the chains off of the engineers and designers. The other side of it is, something that’s custom fit just to you, that’s another great usage of 3D printing. We can already see that if you go to your dentist.
Then, a third example of productionizing 3D printing was one that you and I have been reading about in Formula One, the McLaren Racing Team is actually going and replacing parts on their very sophisticated cars using, I think, a Stratasys 3D printer and creating these parts rather quickly in relationship to the amount of time it would have taken them otherwise. They’re going from like 5 weeks to 1.5 weeks.
That’s a huge advantage when you can shorten the production cycle and create this part for the car that will hopefully make it run better and enable you to get those milliseconds to win these Formula One races.
Dirk, I think we’re at a point now where 3D printing is really starting to gain some ground. Do you see, when you look at this change in the market, what do you see? What do you see as the evolution of this process as it starts taking over more manufacturing?
To me, it’s evolutionary. I don’t know that we’ve seen such a big step between the times we’ve talked about this before and where things are now. I mean, let me answer by way of focusing on the examples. The GE example is a wonderful one for what the quality of the part is, for lack of a better word.
The tolerances that you would need on a part in a jet engine are basically as precise as you can get. That is a wonderful signifier for the quality that’s possible. Now, that’s the quality that’s possible for a huge corporation that is supplying a part on a massively expensive vehicle, right?
It’s almost at the level of proof of technology, not what’s available to most of the people who want to use the technology. It’s great that they have that tolerance, but it’s still some ways away before it’s going to matter other than to this tiny percent of companies and eventually people at all.
The third example, with the F1 car, I mean, look F1 racing teams have a few vehicles that they create spending many millions of dollars. It’s about as custom of a piece of transportation equipment as you can get.
3D printing in that context, were already the expense in manufacturing the vehicle, the parts of the vehicle, is massive. Having a 3D platform that is mobile, that is local, that you can make design changes in real time and produce a different part, that’s like right in the wheelhouse of where this technology is today, right?
That’s a massively expensive and capital intensive thing to do, but you know what? F1 teams are burning money. Who cares, right? What the F1 team gets out of it is that just in time, manufacturing literally just in time, that gives them a great deal of customization. What was your middle example?
That was the retainer at our dentist.
Yeah, you mentioned the retainer, and I, sometime last year, I got something that keeps me from gnashing my teeth at night. They took pictures of my mouth and the dentist explained that she now manufacturers them herself. I just nodded my head, but she might have 3D printed that sucker. It’s certainly very possible that she did. That’s interesting too. I’ve had this 3D printed device in my mouth for months, it sounds like.
It’s cool, but it’s getting at what is 3D printing great at? It’s great at small batch. It’s great at custom. It’s great at B-to-B context. It’s still not something that those of us looking to really impact our personal lives directly, I mean, that’s not something that’s terribly relevant to us, but we’re seeing things that speak to a future that’s very interesting.
I mean, think about photography. Unless you’re a professional photographer with your own darkroom for 150 years-ish, if you wanted to have your photographs become photographs, you have to take film in and somebody would come and process it and magically you’d have pictures on the other end. We’re not even at that stage yet, but that’s the intermediate stage. Great 3D printing first is going to be coming to us from this B-to-B intermediary that a lot of people are coming in and paying money to. It’s going to be a long time still until we’re til the point where now photographic printing, your home printer’s just cranking out what you need. That’s eventually where 3D printing is going to be. We’re a long way away from that.
We’re not even yet to go down to the corner store model, let alone have the machine in our house. Yeah, there’s 3D printers in people’s houses but the stuff they do is pretty crummy and/or it’s all pretty expensive, depending on how you measure expense.
I mean, interesting stories, interesting progress, the GE one, in particular, just the quality of the jet engine, that’s cool, but there’s a way to go.
Yeah. I think some of these problems or restrictions that we’ve been talking about are going to be handled or circumvented in a couple different ways. One is, I do think there is an interesting opportunity for a change in the way our products life cycle is handled.
Right now today, I mean we’re starting to see more greening of the product life cycle, right? People are thinking about the packaging. They’re thinking about breaking apart things when the products are done and reusing and recycling different parts. That’s great and those are all design driven in one way or another.
There is the possibility, we’re talking about future applications of additive fabrication. When you think about that, you think about a digital and physical integration that we don’t quite have yet. You pointed out some of the physical touch points that are difficult like we don’t have high quality printer.
At the same time, we don’t necessarily have that huge library of printable parts or things that you can purchase, right?
If I want something, a product, say, some sneakers, right? I don’t just go on Amazon and pick out a model and then my 3D printer at home spits out the sneakers overnight or something like that. Now, we see that Adidas is in the process of printing some, I think there’s like 5,000 shoes, they’re printing, the mid-insoles or some portion of it’s getting 3D printed with the idea that they’ll be going towards customized sneakers in the future.
Very slowly, you see these incremental steps towards a future where it’s more of an on-demand fabrication of things as the materials … A huge problem right now is, there are only certain materials that you can 3D print, right?
It’s very limited. The sneakers that you’re going to get are going to be made out of a fixed set of materials that otherwise you probably wouldn’t want those materials in your sneakers.
No, it doesn’t sound comfortable, Jon.
That needs to be rectified that the level and the number of materials needs to be increased, but we can see this possibility where the digital thing resides in some eCommerce capacity and when we want it, there’s places where you can get things printed. Your 7-Eleven for printing appliances.
Right. The Fotomat of printing your sneakers or your new coffee maker or whatever the heck that is. I find that particularly compelling because it eliminates some of the cycle of waste that has just been a huge burden to ourselves and the planets since the advent of the industrial age. Embedded in our consumption and capitalism and this whole idea of more-and-more-and-more products is that we’re creating …
You might as well have straight from the drawing board to the landfill cycle here where you’re interested in something for a while, then it gets thrown in a bag and picked up by waste management and taken to the dump. I see the potential in additive fabrication to create this much more virtuous usage of materials and eliminate some of the waste.
I mean, think about, just the transportation alone, we’re creating this digital pipeline rather than having the sneakers put in the box and the box put on the UPS truck and the UPS truck burning up the fuel to come to my house to give me the box.
I throw out the box. I wear the shoes. I get tired of the shoes. They stink. I throw them out and they sit in the landfill for the rest of eternity.
A lot of unpleasant things in that trail there, Jon.
Yeah. Too many. I do see that there’s going to be the opportunity for a design influence product life cycle. I say design in the largest sense, not necessarily industrial designers or fashion designers or sneaker designers or whatever, but design, very broadly that we can create a more virtuous product life cycle.
That, I find to be very exciting. I think we see some hints of that in the stories that we examine today. Whether or not that can really happen, I think, speaks to that infrastructure problem that you raised earlier, which is there’s a company or an organization called 3D Hubs that is basically this open network of 3D printers where you say, “Oh, I want to get my object printed. I see there’s someone in Brooklyn near me who can print that,” on their Stratasys printers.
I’ll upload it and they’ll print it out and I’ll go and meet them and I will have paid for it via PayPal or whatever. Not quite the Fotomat yet, but very tiny step forward in terms of access.
I know that this is a little bit fanciful, but I do see this tipping point that we mentioned earlier where we’ve gone from that prototype stage into production. I see that as a significant flag anyway that the possibility for such a product life cycle is there.
I’d be interested to speak with an expert or have a guest on to talk about how far are we away from this all being virtual? What I mean by that is, right now, if I want to buy an appliance, I go to a store. They have a bazillion appliances there that I’m touching, I’m looking at. I mean, it’s an obvious logical step to have the shopping experience move to virtual reality.
Have the purchase experience be online, have the fabrication maybe in the same place the appliance store used to be, but now it’s fabricating the custom appliance, right, with all of the features that I’ve chosen and that I’ve paid for as I’ve shopped in a virtual way because it’s silly that right now we have these giant stores, all these products are shipped to them and sit there. It’s bad business to sit on a lot of inventory. It’s not always a great experience in the store with the salespeople and what all of that looks like.
The intermediate stuff is, I think, some sort of virtual reality shopping and then fabrication in purpose-based stores. That’ll shift, of course, to fabrication in more general purpose stores, which will then shift to fabrication in our house. Basically, I expect, at least for things up to a certain sizes.
What I don’t have a sense of is what is the time horizon for all of those things happening. We’re not even to the first milepost yet on that from a consumer perspective.
That’s where we’ll leave our discussion for today, but if you’re an expert in 3D printing, please get in touch. We’d love to have you on the show. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitaLife.com. That’s just one l in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.