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More Than Plastic: What 3D Printing Adds to Product Manufacturing

In Star Trek: the Next Generation, there is a device called a “Replicator” capable of producing any food on demand.  Just a standard appliance to have on a wayfaring spaceship in the 24th century, this technology exists in a science-fictional world where starvation is a non-issue, and the future of absolute instantaneity has reached its logical conclusion. 

On Earth, in the 21st century, we have an embryo of this idealistic technology in the form of a 3D printer.  It’s already capable of printing everything in your wild imagination, just so long as you dream in plastic.  But while we may not be curing world hunger or homelessness quite yet, this technology is revolutionizing the world of product development in virtually every category.

Perhaps the next best thing to the Star Trek Replicator that does exist is a 3D food printer called Foodini.  It doesn’t create food out of thin air, but it can 3D print a pizza using pre-filled food capsules which serve as a sort of edible ink. 

There is even a type of 3D printer in the works that aspires to print human organs.  The printer, called the BioAssemblyBot, uses synthetic human tissue called bioink, which molds and assembles like the plastic filament found in standard 3D printers, except the end result could save a human life.  While not quite ready for human use, the BioAssemblyBot could one day be the solution to organ transplant shortages, with an ability to create right on the spot everything from hearts, lungs, and pancreases to bones and human skin. 

At this point, you may be wondering why a staffing company is writing

about 3D printing?  As cool and futuristic as the technology is, how does 3D printing affect the recruiting world?

While you won’t be able to 3D-print your ideal job candidate (not entirely anyway), 3D printing is an expanding market—one that’s expected to grow to over $33 billion by 2022—and may soon become integrated within everything we touch.  The result may be a lesser dependence on foreign imports, but also a greater opportunity for an American workforce to increase their skillset.

GE Aviation is currently using 3D-printing, also known as ‘additive manufacturing,’ to produce fuel nozzles for its commercial airliners.  Greg Morris, who heads up the GE team, says, “I actually see additive [manufacturing] as producing situations where you're going to have higher-skilled positions that companies are going to need to fill, both on the technician level, and the engineering and design level.  And I frankly think you'll see a different type of machining that will challenge the current state of machining, meaning you'll get complex parts that a machinist will have to work with versus starting with a block of material.”

Morris adds, “So you're not replacing machinists, you're just asking them to learn a little different skill set of what they start with and work with."

While staffing is a critical subset of how this new technology will impact our ever-evolving industrial landscape, where 3D printing really shows its colors is in product manufacturing. 

Currently, 3D printing is primarily plastic-based material, most useful for prototyping, and still requires some post-processing (i.e. sanding and buffing the material surface to produce a more finished product).  But these things are changing. 

For one, metal-printing is becoming an increasingly more accessible possibility.  According to a recent report, 80% more metal 3D printers were sold in 2017 compared to the year prior.  While primarily useful in automotive and aerospace manufacturing, metal printers like the ones from Desktop Metal are poised to take the shop out of the machine shop.  They make a printer for home use, called the DM Studio – mostly for low-volume prototyping purposes – but for mass-production, the DM Production system can print 8,200 cubic centimeters of metal objects every single hour.

3D printing is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry by streamlining workflows, lowering production costs, and making designers more self-sufficient along every stage from ideation to finished product.

“It allows you to rapidly go through design iterations,” says Roger Maranan, Lead Product Manager for GrabCAD Print, the software driving printers for 3D printing company Stratasys, “There’s a good reason why it’s such a big part of a product company’s process; you can design, print, tweak… There’s a lot of time saving.”

Instead of waiting on a supplier for a special part, which can take weeks to ship, a company with a 3D printer can print its own part out in just a matter of hours.

3D printers will probably not become a household appliance any time soon, however, according to Maranan.  Because 3D-printing requires a certain level of technical knowledge, more consumer-level uses require a middle-person to actualize certain design concepts.  But in there lies a commercial space with a consumer-direct 3D-printing application. 

Makerbot, which is also owned by Stratasys, specializes in consumer-grade 3D printers for designers who want to work from home. 

And a company called Voodoo Manufacturing allows consumers to receive the benefits of 3D printing without needing to own or operate the equipment; their team of designers can render a crude napkin sketch into scalable promotional materials which are made ready to print and ship. 

For engineers and designers working at 3D printing companies – who possess the necessary technical know-how to operate the machines – having

a 3D printer onsite means having access to infinite design possibilities right at their fingertips.  This can also translate directly to workplace fun.

Manaran says a popular prank amongst his GrabCad coworkers is to 3D-print a banana and place it in the kitchen fruit bowl to see who notices.  Some of Maranan’s peers will even occasionally jam out with 3D-printed ukuleles on their breaks.  In addition to novelties and play things, his team often 3D-prints things they need around the house: custom light fixtures, replacement parts for home appliances, and material goods for other home improvement projects. 

We are just at the precipice of what this amazing technology is capable of, but the potential for 3D-printing is so expansive, it’s literally reaching outer space;  NASA recently used over 100 3D-printed parts on its new Orion Spacecraft.  Teaming up with Stratasys, the parts were designed using a type of thermoplastic which is capable of enduring the extreme heat of space travel.

So while 3D printing isn’t quite at Star Trek status – it is helping us to boldly go where no one has gone before, more quickly, affordably, and efficiently.