At Boeing, the team handling additive manufacturing in plastics has cut down its processing time dramatically. While it might take up to a year to make some small parts using conventional tools, 3D printing can lessen the processing time to a week, said Michael Hayes, lead engineer for additive manufacturing in plastics at the company.
The company can also more easily tweak its products using the technology, he said. "You can fail early," Hayes said. "You can make the first part very quickly, make changes, and get to a high-quality part faster."
NASA is another organization that is using 3D printers to experiment. The space agency has been looking at the technology for years, but over the past six months, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been using the technology more frequently to test new concepts for parts that may soon find their way into spacecraft.
Located in Pasadena, California, the lab has a dozen 3D printers including consumer models made by companies such as MakerBot, Stratasys and 3D Systems.
Previously, 3D printers were too expensive, but the revolution now is their affordability, said Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer at the lab. JPL uses the printers as a brainstorming tool as part of what Soderstrom calls their "IT petting zoo."
So far, the program's results have been good. This past summer, mechanical engineers used the printers to create concepts for simple items like table trays. But an actual stand for a webcam was produced too, to be used for conference calls. And engineers realized, using the 3D printers, they could incorporate the same swivel mechanism that was used for the stand into their design for a new spacecraft part for deploying parachutes.
"That was the 'aha' moment," Soderstrom said, that the printers could be used to conceive and print parts for actual spacecraft. The swivel part, which has been designed but not manufactured yet, would provide wiggle room to the parachute to reduce the torque or rotational impact when it deploys.
Another advantage of having a 3D printer in-house is that it can give a company an easier way to fine-tune designs for new products, Soderstrom said. "It can take you 20 times to get an idea right," he said.
Soderstrom hopes that eventually entire spacecraft could be printed using the technology. The spacecraft would be unmanned, and small, perhaps a flat panel the size of an art book. "Not all spacecraft need to look like the Voyager," Soderstrom said.
For consumer-level 3D printers, the technology is still developing. Depending on the machine, the printed objects are not always polished, and the software to make the designs can be buggy and difficult to learn, Soderstrom said. Software for generating designs for 3D printing can be supplied by the printer vendor, take the form of computer-aided design programs such as Autodesk, or come from large engineering companies like Siemens.
Still, Soderstrom recommends that CIOs make the investment in 3D printing and purchase or otherwise obtain several machines on loan. They don't have to be the most expensive models, he said, but companies should try to identify which business units might see the most benefit from the machines. Companies should try to find somebody who can act as the "IT concierge" -- a person with knowledge of the technology who can advise the company how best to use it.
"Producing a high-fidelity part on some of the cheaper 3D printers can be hard," Soderstrom said. "This concierge could help with that." Certain skills this person may need could include knowing how to work with multiple different materials within a single object, he said.
Companies don't have to be as large as Boeing or NASA to get some use out of 3D printers. The technology is also an option for small-business owners and entrepreneurs looking to make customized designs for prototypes and then print them in small-scale runs.