3D printing is transforming manufacturing

3D printing is transforming manufacturing

Welcome to “Ask Deb from QA,” an advice column from MxD.

Deb from QA — with decades of experience on the factory floor — will answer your questions to demystify and explain the digital manufacturing industry.

Please submit your questions to debfromqa@mxdusa.org

Q:  What kinds of new and interesting things are manufacturers doing with 3D printing?

Everyone’s doing new and interesting things with 3D printing. Heck, people are printing out houses, boats, and even parts that go into fighter jets and Chinook helicopters. This is an innovation bandwagon that manufacturing has jumped on with gusto.

Just ask the folks at McKinsey & Company, who partner with my friends at MxD. They recently wrote an interesting article about how additive manufacturing — another name for 3D printing — has gone mainstream. 

According to McKinsey, additive manufacturing is becoming the fastest and most cost-effective way to produce functional prototypes during product development and testing.

This didn’t exactly happen overnight. 3D printing has been around for more than 40 years, but for most of that time, the focus was on making a product, like a house. Now folks have realized their imaginations don’t have to stop there. 

“The possibilities are endless when it comes to 3D printing,” says MxD’s CNC Manufacturing Engineer Alex Velez. When I first got this question, I speed-dialed Alex and MxD’s Systems Integration Engineer Eric Kozikowski for the 411 on how additive manufacturing is transforming factories.

Take tooling. It costs a lot and takes a lot of time. With additive manufacturing, there’s no tooling needed. You model whatever you need in computer-aided design (CAD) software, which allows you to create a part fast — like in a day — instead of having your tool room make it, which can require weeks of lead time and oodles of money. And you can make revisions without breaking the bank.

“With a 3D print, you can quickly get a visual representation of the physical part in front of you,” Eric said. “That instant gratification of having that part and being able to test it out on the fly is an important piece of why this has become such a popular piece of technology.”

I can tell you that operators on the shop floor are among 3D printing’s many fans. They may have an idea about how a part could be made faster and easier with the right fixture. And a lot of times, those fixtures (which hold a part in place during manufacturing), can be 3D-printed. The same thing goes for jigs, which are used to guide and control a tool.  

For those of us who can’t quite wrap our minds around this, a simple explanation is that additive manufacturing starts with a design file that’s transmitted to a 3D printer. There, the three-dimensional object is created, or printed, layer-by-layer, kind of like a lasagna. Those layers can be made of metals, ceramics, composites, or polymers. And depending on the process, printing can take minutes, hours, or days. 

You can expect more new and interesting uses of 3D printing in a factory near you. 

After all, in mid-2022, President Joe Biden, with five top U.S. manufacturers including Lockheed Martin, launched Additive Manufacturing Forward (AM Forward), which is a program designed so that big manufacturers help their smaller suppliers amp up their use of additive manufacturing. The Biden administration says planned public and private efforts could have benefits “up and down supply chains in many industries.”

That includes aerospace and defense, with the White House noting how the Air Force “is 3D-printing metal replacement parts as they are needed, instead of relying on costly inventory or waiting years for parts made with hard-to-source components.”

It looks like — no pun intended — the sky actually is the limit when it comes to this technology. 

Now, can someone tell me how to 3D print a margarita?

Check out the last Ask Deb here:
Why the focus on ESG?

Deb from QA wants to hear your questions. Send ’em to debfromqa@mxdusa.org and she’ll answer as soon as her boat’s done printing.