2. The 3D printer goes industrial
A new generation of heavy-duty 3D printers is increasingly being employed for industrial manufacturing.
Why it matters: 3D printers have long been used to speed the making of prototypes, but the growing ability to design and print a range of materials means they are becoming an integral part of the manufacturing chain.
How it works: Manufacturing has historically required the production of parts first by injection molding, which can "take weeks or even months," depending on supply chains, said Richard Garrity, the CEO of Stratasys, the global leader in 3D printing.
- Newer generations of 3D printers can enable manufacturers to "skip that process and go right to the end output itself," he adds, allowing companies to simply mass print the parts they need.
- When GM suddenly needed to make ventilators during the early stages of the pandemic last year, 3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — allowed the company to rapidly transition its automobile assembly lines for the new product.
Background: This kind of industrial use marks a change in how 3D printing was initially envisioned, says Bradley Rothenberg, CEO of the 3D printing software company nTopology.
- "Everyone was obsessed with the idea of a 'Star Trek'-like replicator you could have in your home that would make everything," he says.
- "But what we've learned is that 3D printing is a new manufacturing process that enables new applications to be built and made."
Details: Holo, a 3D printing startup that spun out of the design giant Autodesk, has made progress in developing machines that can produce difficult-to-print industrial materials like copper.
- "These are parts that can only be made using 3D printing, not traditional manufacturing," says Arian Aghababaie, president and chief strategy officer at Holo. "They're designed with the intent that will be made at volume with additive manufacturing."
The bottom line: You may not be using a 3D printer at home any time soon, but the spread of the technology into traditional manufacturing can shorten supply chains and enable companies to transition to new product lines more nimbly.