3D printing is growing up. Is it as revolutionary as its promise or just another valuable tool in the work toolbox – or both? In this article you will hear from MakerBot and a 3D printing consultant in the Rust Belt to see where things are and where they are heading.

 

3D printing has not reached its full potential in professional and manufacturing-centric environments, but there’s a lot of healthy room to grow there, say additive manufacturing engineers, consultants and academics. New technologies and machines are cropping up that are taking advantage of innovations in metal powders. One of the biggest questions about the technology is whether it can move from being a favourite of parts design and prototyping to a mainstay on the shop floor. Will it hit its stride at higher production levels? And what are the barriers to making bigger waves?

 

Industry insiders say shops of all sizes are using these 3D processes in a variety of ingenious ways – from custom work holding and moulds to functional end use parts featuring geometry that is only possible with additive manufacturing.

 

“CNC shops have been using things like MakerBot to 3d print complex structures than can hold the device in the mill at the angle needed to be able to machine the part,” says Chris Barrett, president of 3DDirections. “So, shops are making jigs, fixtures and some tooling that way.”

 

Barrett is a chemist and physicist by trade but was bored with test tubes – and found his way to material science and engineering. Because he’s based in Ohio, Barret was exposed to traditional manufacturing and the world of emerging additive and 3D printing technologies. He started his consultancy with a strong understanding of both worlds and focuses on helping companies take advantage of the technology where it makes the most sense.

 

“There are a number of key ways that manufacturers and job shops are using professional 3D printers today,” says Dave Veisz, vice president of engineering at MakerBot. “Companies are using them for workplace organisation – for parts that help a shop implement 5S lean manufacturing, assembly and measurement fixtures, parts grippers, gauges and where high strength plastics are adequate… you’re not going to use it for uniquely demanding high-force or high-temperature applications like oven fixtures, but for many fixtures and tool applications, it works well.”