Manufacturing Plastics Using 3D Printers for Rapid Prototyping
The growing applications of 3D printing are rapidly opening up a new world of possibilities for the plastics manufacturing industry. 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing because it uses digital design data to “print” or build layers of plastic and other materials, quickly creating solid prototypes of products for an entire spectrum of industries and uses.
Benefits of 3D Printing Services for Rapid Prototyping
Using a 3D printer can drastically reduce in the amount of time it takes to manufacture a product, including some of the assembly process. For example, 3D prototyping provides a preview of detailed shapes of new products. This can help engineers with identifying the appropriate designs for tooling and injection mold casting prior to mass production of a product.
Here are some benefits 3D printing will likely bring to users in the near future:
- Products made with 3D printers rather than with molds could eliminate the need for some of the necessary tooling for new designs as well as retooling for design changes that is necessary within the traditional manufacturing process.
- Allows for advances in the medical industry. 3D printed anatomical replicas of internal body parts needing surgery may help surgeons to be better prepared for possible complications when performing delicate medical procedures.
- 3D printing avoids some of the costs incurred for small component parts that can sometimes be made faster and cheaper using a 3D printer.
- Consumers will be able to purchase products that are uniquely customized to the individual, thus changing what we think of mass production.
- 3D printing technologies use only the amount of materials necessary to produce the product. Some of the materials that are traditionally required to make a product are necessary only because of the manufacturing process. Changing the process allows for less waste, producing products that are lighter in weight and just as durable as those created by traditional methods.
- According to Reprap.org, it’s possible that the technology will one day help average households create their own products at home. They estimate that “a family using one RepRap to print only 20 domestic products per year (about 0.02% of the products available) can expect to save between $300 and $2000.” [i]
Rapid Technological Advances in 3D Printing
Although the innovative technologies of additive manufacturing date back to the 1980s, the original cost of a 3D printer made it difficult for most manufacturers to even consider purchasing the equipment. Credit for the growing popularity of 3d printing technologies has been given to Adrian Bowyer, whose 2004 RepRap printers lowered the costs and opened up the technology to the mass market. [ii]
RepRap printers were the first self-replicating machines, meaning they could “print” some of the parts needed to make replicas of a RepRap printer. In other words, the RepRap printer was capable of cloning itself. The printer could also create prototypes from CAD designs. Soon engineers were able to make inexpensive prototypes prior to the tooling process.
A decade later, 3D printers are increasingly being used to create final products rather than just prototypes. Some of the products being made by additive manufacturing include jewelry, working clocks, tools that are customized for the user, small components for car parts and more. And the range of materials being used in 3D printing is expanding, too. Materials like manufacturing grade plastic, nylon and even steel, titanium and other metals are becoming available for use in 3D printers.
Auto Manufacturer BMW and 3D Printing Technologies
Companies like BMW are among the pioneer companies to discover ways to improve production by using additive manufacturing. The automobile manufacturer saved a reported 58% in costs after implementing 3D printing technologies for making jigs and fixtures.[iii]
BMW has also begun using the technology to reduce physical strain being experienced by factory workers while assembling parts. Workers are required to push rubber plugs into drain holes as part of the assembly process, causing potential for strain on the thumbs. Additive technologies were used to make customized orthotic devices that reduce joint strain and overextension of the thumbs. [iv]
And BMW has found another potential use of additive technologies. The company has teamed with designer Erik Melldahl of Sweden to introduce a concept vehicle made from biodegradable materials using additive manufacturing processes. [v]
3D Printing and Global Competitiveness in the U.S. Manufacturing Industry
National support for 3D printing, rapid prototyping and similar advanced technologies in the U.S. manufacturing industry has come in the form of billions of dollars in federal grants. The purpose of these investments is to increase the global competitiveness of U.S manufacturing in emerging technologies.[vi] With seemingly endless possibilities coming from new technologies, we will most certainly continue to see incredible changes that revolutionize the future of manufacturing, and allow greater options for customers, especially those needing low volume quantities.
Microdyne Plastics is committed to remaining competitive in the market place in ways that best serve our customers. As part of our process, we offer prototyping services to customers interested in having a working model of a product.