AM’s 2020 Advance: How the Crisis Created Conditions for Additive Manufacturing to Leap Ahead

Stories we’ve found within the pandemic period reveal 3D printing’s promise for scalable, flexible production and rapid product development.
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Additive manufacturing (AM) is a disruptive technology. What that means is: It changes the rules of the very system to which it’s applied. It is not a plug-in solution that cleanly replaces conventional modes of production. Instead, it represents an entirely different way of thinking about not just manufacturing, but also manufacturing’s relationship to design as well as to the entire enterprise around it. That extent of disruption is what makes AM difficult to implement within an organization already committed to conventional production.

But when the times are disrupted for an altogether different reason, a disruptive technology can more easily deliver its promise and move ahead.

The Cool Parts Show is Additive Manufacturing’s video series for showcasing success stories with 3D printing for end-use parts During the lockdown period of the coronavirus pandemic, we thought we would take a break from producing the show. In conversations with AM users, however, we discovered that AM was not taking a break. Stories of 3D printing delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) were widespread, but perhaps more telling for the long-term role of AM, we also found stories of additive leaping ahead to deliver on some of its more ambitious promises related to the scalability of production and the speed of product development.

Embedded below are episodes of The Cool Parts Show that tell the stories of the wins in these areas — wins that all happened while many of us were sheltering at home.

During a time of disruption, additive manufacturing was used to achieve all of this:

1. Scaled-Up Production: Test Swabs by the Millions and Immediate Reshoring of Swabs Manufacturing

3D printing of nasopharyngeal test swabs used to detect COVID-19 created the capacity to make these swabs in the U.S. at the rate of millions per week, almost immediately ending the reliance on foreign manufacturing for these swabs. Importantly, no swabs 3D printing factory will perform this production, because 3D printing allows manufacturing to be distributed among many sources. Watch the episode:


2. Rapid Product Development: New Product for New Market Goes from Idea to Production in 10 Days

Fitz Frames uses 3D printing to make custom eyeglasses. The coronavirus created a need for eyeglasses as PPE because wearing contact lenses is problematic for healthcare workers battling the crisis. However, PPE eyewear has different requirements from day-to-day eyewear. Because 3D printing was the manufacturing method, the Fitz team was able to innovate and iterate so quickly that the new product was ready for production in 10 days. To support care workers, Fitz is donating many of these glasses. Watch the episode:


3. Scaled-Up Production: Implant Maker Meets Surging Demand

Tangible Solutions is a company founded to make medical implants through 3D printing. The value of this mode of manufacturing was revealed during the pandemic. Implant demand surged, because medical providers were stocking up to get ready for the coming demand in implant replacements due to the surgeries being delayed. The additive capacity was scalable to meet the sudden increase. Conventional operations, specifically machining, posed the limitation that had to be addressed. Watch the episode:


4. Rapid Product Development: 13 Parts Replaced by 1

The interruption of normal production left drone engine maker Cobra Aero with little to do but re-evaluate its product. The company already used AM, recognizing this as a better way to produce engine cylinders. What the company did not see was the even bigger win for AM just waiting to be found: the exhaust system. By exploring and iterating during the break, Cobra’s engineering team developed a new exhaust system that is lighter, cheaper, better-performing and easier to produce. Replacing 13 parts with a single 3D printed component will now drastically reduce assembly work. Watch the episode:


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    According to engineers with GE Aviation, the challenges of additive metal manufacturing—serious as they are—are small compared to the promise that this technology holds. How else can you make a plane engine 1,000 pounds lighter?

  • 7 Helpful Numbers Quantify Design Rules for Additive Manufacturing

    How tiny can features get? How high can walls extend? What is the longest unsupported distance a bridge of material can span between two features? These and other DMLS and SLS design rules addressed by expert from Proto Labs.

  • Video: Miniature Jet Engine Made with Additive Manufacturing

    GE engineers started with a radio-controlled engine and redesigned it for additive manufacturing. This model manufacturing exercise illustrates important real points about additive manufacturing as a production option.