Commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus saves millions of dollars in parts production and fuel costs by shaving off the gross weight of an aircraft through 3D printing. Its vision is far more radical than parts, though, and someday it plans to completely print a 3D plane, according to Curtis Carson, head of systems integration, at the Airbus Centre of Competence Manufacturing Engineering.
"When you look at the 40 million components in an aircraft, that means our stock and inventories use up a significant amount of money," Carson said at the "Inside 3D Printing Conference" earlier this month in New York.
Being able to produce parts on an "as needed" basis reduces the need for inventory, Carson said.
Additionally, by using 3D printings "additive manufacturing" process, versus the traditional "subtractive manufacturing" process involved in lathing machine parts, waste materials drop from 90 percent to 5 percent to 10 percent, he said.
"It's called buy to fly. How much material do we buy and how much of that material ends up flying," Carson said. "It's as simple as that. If you can buy and fly exactly what you purchase, you're able to optimize 100 percent in terms of the aircraft. Who wouldn't be excited about doing something like this?"
Market is shifting
Among the Lux Research report's findings is that the price of printing materials currently are an impediment to industry growth. Much like 2D print makers, manufacturers often sell printing materials at a steep markup - 10 to 100 times over what it costs them.
While the markup was tolerated when companies only used 3D printers for prototyping parts, it it remains a major impediment to the use of the technology for production parts. 3D printing leaders such as 3D Systems, Stratasys and EOS have restricted third-party material suppliers from entering the market, the Lux Research report says.
Based on technical and business scores, only four printer companies currently dominate the 3D "innovation sector," according to Vicari. They are: 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS and Arcam. The four hold a combined 31 percent printer market share.
"Of these, Arcam is distinguished by its open materials supply model," Vicari said.
One change that's expected to spur growth involves a number of expiring patents. In 2006, expiration of several early patent families enabled the emergence of lower-cost desktop printers from companies like Makerbot, as well as consumer-facing 3D printer service providers such as Shapeways.
But, "an even bigger shift is coming" as patents on other key 3D printing technologies start to expire over the next three years, lowering costs for those methods and widening the range of capabilities available to users.
For example, patents on selective laser sintering (SLS), along with the process for removing support material on fused deposition modeling and photopolymer inkjet printing all expire this year. In 2015, the patent for SLS printing of filled composites also expires.
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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