Until the last five years or so, even top-of-the-line professional 3D printers were relegated to rapid prototyping and little else. These six key advancements to AM technology have made 3D printing a suitable means for manufacturing strong, end-use parts at the precise time and point of need:
Power, speed, size, reliability. To meet manufacturers’ needs for scaled production, professional 3D printers evolved with significantly improved print speeds, reliability, maximum part sizes, and part quality. Even desktop-sized 3D printers can now be trusted to produce consistent, high-quality results in key manufacturing roles.
User-friendliness. Development of user-friendly 3D printing software has streamlined and automated many previous points of complication in older AM workflows into a far more simple process. Now, effective use of professional 3D printers does not require specialized labor or AM expertise.
Innovative materials. Today’s 3D printing materials have grown beyond prototyping materials. Vendors have engineered specialized, high-performance 3D printing materials for demanding applications, such as aerospace-grade composites that are stronger than machined aluminum but with just a fraction of the weight. Parts can be printed with high heat resistance, chemical resistance, and fortified with continuous fibers to add extra strength anywhere within the part.
Metal FFF. Metal fused filament fabrication (FFF) technology means 3D printing metal parts is now faster, safer, and more cost-effective than previously. Metal FFF printers offer a wide range of material availability — such as stainless steel, tool steels, Inconel, and copper — and can be operated with minimal PPE and safety precautions.
Industry 4.0 Connectivity. Cloud-based connectivity between each user and set of printers also allows for distributed manufacturing operations. Users can initiate prints across 3D printers in different geographic locations. The ability to ensure the right part is available both where and when it is needed can solve many critical supply chain inefficiencies and challenges.
3D printing software integrations allow users to initiate part production through requests in core factory systems — such as a manufacturing execution system (MES), Enterprise resource planning (ERP) or enterprise asset management (EAM) system — or, by scanning the barcode of a physical part that needs to be duplicated.