SPECIAL FEATURE STORY: 3D printing and manufacturing

In this special feature story, Justin Grey outlines why 3D printing is a gamechanger for manufacturing and prototyping.

In this special feature story, Justin Grey outlines why 3D printing is a gamechanger for manufacturing and prototyping.

Believe it or not, 2104 marked 30 years of 3D printing. While 3D printers have been used in an industrial context for years, their recent explosion into broader application stems from the expiration of a key patent (for Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM) in 2009, which led to a flurry of kit form 3D printers being bought to market.

3D printing allows anyone – be it would-be inventors tinkering on their dining table after hours, promising start-ups or SME business owners with a legitimate business case – to flesh out their ideas cheaply and quickly. To get one’s hands on a 3D, real world prototype of their idea, all one needs is a sketch of the idea with dimensions included. From there, industrial designers produce a 3D CAD file, determine the function of the part (a prototype for visual or for function) based on that file, and then print away. This whole process takes a matter of days – as opposed to months with traditional manufacturing methods – and costs a fraction of the price.

Despite the worrying implications, the recent, well-documented stories of 3D printers being used to create workable weapons demonstrates just what’s possible in 3D printing and gets people thinking. It sounds clichéd, but with 3D printing the possibilities really are only limited by our imagination.

Howard Wood is Director and Co-Founder of 3D Printing Studios, one of the leaders in Australia’s burgeoning 3D printing industry. From scanning customers and producing life-size, 3D-printed statues of them for a KFC marketing campaign to a caricature bust of PM Tony Abbott to dashboards for ambulances to insoles for footwear, Howard has run the gamut of 3D printing jobs.

“When it comes to manufacturing of a particular part, you need the first one that you can test to see if it has the right thickness or feel or look, and you need that in the real world,” he says. “Small businesses are using us to produce something if they’ve got a new product or design coming out. It’s getting that idea in the head, and then how do you get that idea into an actual part or piece. And 3D printing enables it.”

With the efficiencies of 3D printing swaying more and more SME business owners to flesh out new ideas for products – or to improve they way they produce their existing products – Woods says 3D printing is gamechanger for manufacturing.

“There are little cottage industries or ideas that have actually been seen through to fulfillment to make the product and hold it in their hands. That extension arm that you see now that holds an iPhone for doing selfies, a guy came in with a drawing and we produced a 3D file of that.

“The type of companies using it is varied and people are coming out of left field with ideas and designs. One was a shoe company – the lady works from home and produces a particular type of shoe. For a couple of thousand dollars we were able to produce a shoe with her logo and design on it for her. She then sends that to China to have them produced and sells these online. There’s no way she would’ve even been able to start a business like that with a design in the old way.”

Dean Williams, Managing Director of Williams United in Sydney, attests to the game changing potential for 3D printing. His company has a long history in metalworking but now has a sister business that offers 3D printing services. Williams believes that the market in Australia for 3D printing is still quite immature, and that designers need to rethink the way things can be made.

“We’re finding that so many people still don’t even know what it is – they think it’s some sort of magic trick,” he chuckles. “So in Australia it’s still in its fairly early stages. It’s used primarily for prototyping, but we’re trying to push it down the track of creating end-use parts in small batches. We do have some customers who are doing that, but it’s still very much seen as a prototyping tool.”

However, Dean believes that 3D printing is a good fit for Australia and that makes sense. “When you think about it, it does suit Australia a lot, because we don’t have a large population to be mass-producing yet. 3D printing is good for printing products in small batch sizes where you can constantly update the design without having to retool. And we have a lot of good designers in this country as well coming up with new ideas. It makes a lot of sense.”

In 2015, 3D printing is only going to get bigger and better. Two more key patents for 3D printing processes – for what’s called SLA (Stereolithography) and SLS (Selected Laser Sintering) – have recently expired. SLA and SLS are ideal for very, small, very precise 3D printing work, such as for manufacturing intricate designs for jewelry and dental items. With global printing giants such as HP releasing their own 3D printers in 2015, the processes and technology will continue to evolve and the possibilities for 3D printing will only expand.

“A lot of people I talk to say they have a little desktop 3D printer,” says Dean from Williams United, “and that’s good because they’re getting used to the concept and what it can do. And the more that people get used to the concept, they’ll start to rethink the way that items are designed and it’s going to take off dramatically. I think next year we’ll see a lot more traction.”

For Sydney-based Gavin Ritz, going into business for himself wouldn’t have been possible if not for 3D printing. An engineer by trade, Gavin’s start-up business, International Health Group, makes prototype resuscitation masks for newborn babies.

Gavin is working with Howard Wood and his team at 3D Printing Studios to produce his resuscitation mask prototypes. As is the case with many start-ups that employ 3D printing for prototyping, Gavin has signed a non-disclosure agreement that means his prototyping ideas are kept under wraps. But he can say that the inspiration came from his better half.

“My wife is a Midwife and there’s a serious problem in neo-natal resuscitation when newborns need assisted breathing,” Gavin says. “They put a breathing machine on them and they try to breathe, but the problem is there’s a lot of fancy machinery but it doesn’t work so good. So about two years ago we started to develop a resuscitation mask for the new babies.”

Owing to his engineering background, Gavin is intimately aware of the benefits of 3D printing in terms of prototyping phase for his products. And is certainly qualified to speak to that end.

“I’m used to looking at parts from an engineering and prototyping point of view,” he says. “The whole goal or concept in engineering is to make one of something, and you have to make it exactly correct to the right specifications. Normally to make one of something you need to machine metal parts, then cast it and it’d cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars. And then you haven’t even sold your solution yet.

“In terms of making a one-off, that’s where the cost would be in engineering. So if a small inventor has a very, very clever idea, here is a fantastic opportunity for an inventor to make a one-off product. It’s a changing philosophy of how things are done, and I think it’s unbelievable. For small businesses such as myself, it’s a massive, massive breakthrough.”

Working with 3D Printing Studios, Gavin has taken advantage of the cheap production costs and short lead-times of 3D printing to produce many, many prototypes. Using 3D printed molds, Gavin casts various iterations of his product out of silicone, allowing him tweak and refine the design each time at greatly reduced costs. Without the benefits of 3D printing, Gavin says he wouldn’t have been able to do what he’s doing with International Health Group.

“I started going doing the old route and I started making machining parts, and I thought there’s got to be a better way than this,” he explains. “I fund everything myself, so [without 3D printing] I probably wouldn’t have done it. That’s where the unbelievable capabilities of 3D printing come in,” he enthuses. “Before, I would’ve been up for half a million dollars; now I’m only up for $5,000. In terms of prototyping, it’s a massive difference and a major breakthrough.”

While 3D printing hasn’t yet reached the stage where it can be used to mass produce products, Gavin has no doubts about its potential as a game changer for business owners.

“The 3D printing game will change the world as we know it in the next 10, 15, 20 years,” he says. “What you’re seeing now is just the beginning phase…we still might even print a house. In terms of being revolutionary, yes, it is game changing stuff. But I don’t think people know how game changing it is.”

This feature was originally published in the January 2015 print issue of My Business. To read more in-depth features for SME business owners immediately upon publication, subscribe to My Business magazine now. 

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