3D printing starts to gain traction in industrial tool kits

McLaren driver Fernando Alonso of Spain steers his car during the second practice session for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix © AP

Just a fraction of a second can make the difference in Formula One. Over the course of a season, these smallest of margins can separate the winner of the motorsport championship from the also-rans.

One of the ways UK-based McLaren-Honda is looking to capture those marginal gains is with the use of a portable 3D printer, which it took to a Grand Prix event for the first time this month in Bahrain.

It is evidence that 3D printing is finding more real-world applications after years of buzz around a technology that it is hoped will have a transformational effect on wide areas of manufacturing.

Although there are barriers to its widespread use, F1 shows how it is slowly gaining a position in tool kits for industrial production.

The device McLaren is taking to race tracks, which is supplied by US group Stratasys, allows its engineers to make tweaked versions of small plastic parts overnight, for modifications during practices ahead of the race day.

“At this point in time, the cost of the [3D printing] process is very expensive,” says Sir David McMurtry, chief executive of Renishaw, a UK supplier of high-tech measurement tools that also builds 3D metal printing machines.

“But if you find the right part — and it has to be made in the right numbers — it’s very cost effective,” he adds.

Because it involves building up parts in layers of plastic or metal, rather than milling or cutting away material, 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing. Industry figures say it has the potential to be quicker and produce more complex and lightweight structures than traditional manufacturing methods.

Despite existing for about three decades, the technology has been largely restricted to prototyping, design and tooling, rather than mass production. But there are growing signs that is changing.

“We are seeing a lot of corporate and government investment in encouraging companies to adopt the technology for actual production,” says Terry Wohlers, president of the consultancy Wohlers Associates.

We are seeing a lot of corporate and government investment in encouraging companies to adopt the technology for actual production

It estimates the global market in products and services for additive manufacturing increased 17.4 per cent to $6.1bn in 2016. About 60 per cent of that spending was linked to production applications, up from about half the year before.

Healthcare and aerospace are two sectors that have led the way. 3D printing of hearing aids and dental devices has become mainstream, according to research group Gartner.

General Electric last year introduced additively manufactured metal parts into an aircraft jet engine — the inside of fuel nozzles in the combustion system, made from chromium cobalt — jointly developed with Safran of France.

“The interior of the fuel nozzle is highly complex and would have required 19 parts welded and blazed together to do the conventional way,” explains Greg Morris, general manager of additive development at GE Aviation. “In the end, it simply couldn’t be done the conventional way.”

One-third of GE’s new turboprop engine will also be produced with additive machines, with 12 major 3D-printed parts for the section instead of 855. In such cases of highly engineered products, the technique can allow manufacturers to cut out lengthy supply chains as well as production and waiting times.

3D printing is also spreading to other sectors, such as consumer goods. Adidas will produce 5,000 pairs of running shoes with an additively manufactured midsole later this year, with plans for more than 100,000 by the end of 2018. Although these will initially be standardised, it eventually hopes to tailor the segment for individual runners.

This points to the increasing sophistication of additive manufacturing machines.

“We’re seeing most major [3D printing] hardware companies including sensing and scanning of the build process, so they can understand where something may have gone wrong,” says Duann Scott of Autodesk, a company that develops 3D design software.

However, drawbacks that prevent wider use in factories include the high initial outlay for machines and the slowness compared with certain other manufacturing methods.

For now, 3D printing is most suited to products where weight reduction is important, a relatively low number of highly customised parts are required and the design could not have been manufactured with traditional techniques, says Brian Drab, an investment analyst at the brokerage William Blair & Co.

But he adds a note of scepticism to puncture the hype that surrounded the technology a few years ago. “The potential for 3D printing for industrial manufacturing more broadly is vastly overstated by many people . . . You still have significant limitations in terms of speed, quality of the part and material selection,” he says.

“Any industry where you’re making thousands of parts, there’s not going to be widespread adoption until that speed issue is solved.”

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