3-D printing comes of age

Companies have used the technology for decades, but it has surged in popularity

Boeing, NASA, Lockheed Martin and GE are among the large corporations that for decades have used additive manufacturing, known more popularly as 3-D printing.

Additive manufacturing is also used prominently in the medical and dental industries -- about 80,000 hip implants have been made to date using 3-D printers, and every day some 15,000 tooth crowns and fillings are made with parts from 3-D printers, said Terry Wohlers, an industry analyst.

It was only about six or seven years ago that people began invoking dimensions to give "additive manufacturing" the trendier 3-D printing name. The rise of a movement among consumers known as "maker culture," a type of do-it-yourself philosophy geared toward engineering-related pursuits such as 3-D printing, robotics and electronics, is one possible explanation for the name change.

But analysts also point to a singular event: the expiration in the late 2000s of a key patent held by Stratasys covering fused deposition modeling. Growth in the consumer market has been impressive since then, because the technology, also known as material extrusion, is now used in other companies' 3-D printers.

The extrusion process produces an object by melting and depositing molten plastic through a heated extrusion tip. Like other additive manufacturing processes, it adds one layer upon another until the part is complete. Alternative methods include material jetting, which uses an inkjet print head to deposit liquid plastic layer by layer. Another is powder bed fusion, which uses an energy source, like a focused laser, to build parts from plastic or metal powder.

Those three processes are the most popular, Wohlers said.

3-D printing has some challenges, both for consumers and industry. For consumers, the quality of the lower-cost machines isn't great, said Wohlers. They're hard to set up, sometimes there are pieces missing, and their reliability and output is not always very good, he said.

And for the average consumer, versus the technically adept do-it-yourselfer, there still aren't many compelling applications, some say. Instead of making a new toy or replacing a household tool with your computer, "it's still more convenient to go to the hardware store or toy store," said Pete Brasiliere, an industry analyst with Gartner.

For the enterprise, 3-D printing can have a useful place. If you want to print 1 million devices or products at high quality, experts agree it's better to go with a traditional subtractive process. "But if you want to do one, 10, or even 100, 3-D printing has advantages for low-quantity, high-product value," Brasiliere said.

Others cite additive manufacturing's boutique appeal. 3-D printing will never replace the high-volume manufacturing of mass-produced items like the iPhone, said Brasiliere, but for low-volume components that have very specific requirements around the material, design and performance, "3-D printing makes sense," he said.

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