3D printing may have an image problem. It's sometimes seen as a hobbyist pursuit -- a fun way to build knickknacks from your living room desktop -- but a growing number of companies are giving serious thought to the technology to help get new ideas off the ground.
That's literally off the ground in aircraft maker Boeing's case. Thirty thousand feet in the air, some planes made by Boeing are outfitted with air duct components, wiring covers and other small, general parts that have been made via 3D printing, or, as the process is known in industrial applications, additive manufacturing. The company also uses additive manufacturing with metal to produce prototype parts for form, fit and function tests.
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Whether it's the living room or a corporate factory, the underlying principle of 3D printing -- additive manufacturing -- is the same. It's different from traditional manufacturing techniques such as subtractive or formative manufacturing, which mainly rely on removing material through molding, drilling or grinding. Additive manufacturing instead starts from scratch and binds layers of material sequentially in extremely thin sheets, into a shape designed with 3D modeling software.
Boeing has been conducting research and development in the area of additive manufacturing since 1997, but the company wants to scale up its processes in the years ahead so it can use the technology to build larger, structural components that can be widely incorporated into military and commercial aircraft.
For these larger titanium structures that constitute the backbone of aircraft, "they generally fall outside of the capacity of additive manufacturing in its current state because they're larger than the equipment that can make them," said David Dietrich, lead engineer for additive manufacturing in metals at Boeing.
"That's our goal through aggressive new machine designs -- to scale to larger applications," he said.
Boeing's use of 3D printing may seem unconventional because of the growing attention on the technology's consumer applications for things like toys, figurines and sculptures. But it's not.
In industry, "we don't like to refer to it as '3D printing' because the term additive manufacturing has been around longer and is more accepted," Dietrich said.
For consumers, some of the more prominent 3D printer makers include MakerBot, MakieLab and RepRap; industrial-grade makers include 3D Systems, which also makes lower-cost models, Stratasys, ExOne and EOS.
The cost of a 3D printer varies widely. 3D Systems' Cube, which is designed for home users and hobbyists, starts at around US$1,300. But machines built for industrial-grade manufacturing in industries like aerospace, automotive and medical, such as those made by ExOne, can fetch prices as high as $1 million.
The average selling price for an industrial-grade 3D printer is about $75,000, according to market research compiled by Terry Wohlers, an analyst who studies trends in 3D printing. Most consumer printers go for between $1,500 and $3,000, he said.
3D printing or additive manufacturing offers several advantages over traditional subtractive processes. The biggest benefit, some businesses say, is that the technology allows for speedier, one-off production of products in-house.