June 23, 2015      

Additive manufacturing is evolving quickly in capabilities and is becoming less expensive. It is also gaining acceptance among large corporations. However, it is just beginning to be integrated into advanced manufacturing.

There is no doubt that fast prototyping using 3-D printers is invaluable to companies that adopt advanced manufacturing as an affordable way to produce low-volume, high-mix (nonstandard) goods. They aim to satisfy fickle market demands and delight consumers jaded by mass production.

But additive manufacturing cannot scale in a way that would make it part of regular production. The technology does not make bolts or buttons or motors remotely fast enough for an original equipment manufacturer to abandon its supply chain.

Most of the printers on the market today are pricey, slow, and small. Often the finished goods still require trimming, deburring, polishing, and the like. And concern about possible hazardous indoor air pollution caused by the machines is growing.

Although some industry observers maintain that integration in niche sectors is inevitable, 3-D printing will have a noncritical role to play in advanced manufacturing for the time being.

None of this is to say that there is no market for 3-D printing.

General Electric owns more than 300 printers. It is, in fact, using additive manufacturing to make critical, metallic jet-engine components that would be difficult or impossible to create any other way. More on that in a moment.

The list of industries using additive manufacturing (download PDF), compiled by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), includes the following:

Adoption in other sectors such as education and construction is likely to increase as the cost of industrial printers continues to fall. NIST has found that system prices fell, after adjusting for inflation, 51 percent from 2001 to 2011.

A 2014 PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP survey of 100 manufacturers found that 11 percent of them have achieved volume production of printed products.

Still, the government estimates that only 1 percent of all products manufactured in the U.S. are the result of 3-D printing.

3-D printing takes off at GE and Boeing

Among those printed products is a General Electric device called a compressor inlet temperature sensor that the company supplies for The Boeing Co.‘s 777 jets, which are partly assembled by robots. (Executives at Boeing said the aircraft maker has been using 3-D printers, largely for nonmetal pieces, since 1997.)

GE's 3-D-printed sensor for Boeing

This 3-D printed sensor is simpler and lighter.

The sensor is the first printed GE device to win U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval for use in a commercial aircraft. GE bought 3-D printing company Morris Technologies in 2012 to gain this capability.

The advantage with printing this sensor is that it is created in one piece rather than multiple parts. The elegant design makes creating the part simpler and lighter.

On the other hand, that same elegance would be exceedingly complex and costly to pull off using conventional production means.

The company uses a laser to turn metal powder, layer on top of layer, into solid metal. Using a similar process, GE has also created a 100 percent-printed miniature jet that has been run as fast as 33,000 revolutions per minute. It was a demonstration project.

In production, these printers can supply parts for advanced manufacturing operations in real time, demonstrating the same flexibility and cost-effectiveness that the operations are known for.

General Electric executives said they are using more than 300 printers companywide and will be printing 100,000 at the GE Aviation unit by 2020.

GE is also working on a fuel nozzle that would be manufactured using 3-D printing. It is even considering using metal additive technology for Boeing 777 turbine blades. GE plans to has been expanding its 3-D printing staff, according to Bloomberg Business.

In addition, Airbus SAS is buying 1,000-plus airliner parts produced by additive printer maker Stratasys Ltd. Airbus isn’t just a buyer, either. It has joined the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Virginia, which researches applications of advanced manufacturing, including printing.

Starting small but growing fast

In addition to aerospace companies, firms in oil and gas production are using additive manufacturing to make final, end-point tooling and spare parts, said Sunny Webb, a researcher at consulting firm Accenture.

Webb said Google Inc.’s Project Ara would be a good venue for 3-D printing. In Ara, Google is exploring mobile phones that are assembled, component by component, by consumers. People could add new or upgraded hardware similar to how they add apps to their operating system. The components could be produced by printers.

Where 3-D printing would directly interface advanced manufacturing, she said, is in small factories that produce high-value-added goods such as jewelry and other items that feature a high degree of individuality, if not actual uniqueness.