With 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (the two terms are used interchangeably), instead of products or parts being molded, cast, or machined out of blocks of metal or plastic they are “printed” by machines that build up thin layers of plastic or metal, layers that can be fractions of the diameter of a human hair, to make an object.
A recent survey of high-tech executives conducted by UPS found 4 percent reported their companies actively use the technology and 12 percent are experimenting with it.
Of those companies using 3D printers, 75 percent deploy it in the design process, 55 percent for samples, 34 percent for finished products, and 24 percent for generating spare parts.
According to the just published 20th edition of the Wohlers Report—viewed by many as the bible of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry—the business has quadrupled in the past five years to about $4.1 billion worldwide for all products and services directly associated with 3D printing.
Paul Bates, lead 3D printing development engineer at UL (Underwriting Laboratories), said his company, “along with many industry experts, feels the overall growth of the additive manufacturing industry will be between 30-40 percent over the next few years, reaching about $80 billion dollars by 2023.”
“We think all industries are gaining interest in 3D printing. Aerospace, automotive, medical, consumer products are some of the more early adopters in this technology,” Bates said. “Most of the key manufacturers have been using it for preproduction and prototyping for the last 20 years. With the possibilities of mass customization, the impact on all segments of manufacturing is certain.”
“We expect another quadrupling in the next five years,” said Terry Wohlers, president and chief consultant of Wohlers Associates. “We really don’t see anything that would slow the growth. This is an industry that is not brand new, it’s been around since 1988, and it’s just gained more traction and media attention and a lot of investment that we’ve never seen in the past.
There are 49 companies that last year made industrial grade 3D printers that range in price from $5,000 to $1 million and 300 that made low-cost desktop machines. Most make products out of plastic, but a growing number make parts out of metal or other materials such as ceramics or even biological materials—printers are now being used to print human tissue.
Wide adoption of 3D printing could affect the transportation industry in several ways:
- Transport companies might use 3D printers to support their own operations.
- Companies could create services that cater to users of 3D printers.
- Raw materials used by 3D printers could become an important commodity to be transported.
- Use of 3D printers could result in the manufacture of products closer to their point of consumption, perhaps reducing the need for transport of some products.
Printing At Sea. One company that has looked at the possibility of using 3D printers to support its own operations is Maersk. The company’s tanker unit investigated using these devices to make spare parts, with the idea that a printer might be able to be placed on a tanker or an oil rig. When the part was needed, a computer file could be loaded into a 3D printer and the required part could then be manufactured on board in a number of hours.
This is attractive because the logistics of delivering spare parts at sea can be complex and expensive.
In addition, a ship or drilling rig is a costly asset to not be operating. The website rigzone.com estimated on Aug. 10 the daily rate for a drillship capable of drilling in 4,000 feet of water was $511,000; the rate for a semisubmersible rig capable of operating at similar depths was $431,000.
Research on using 3D printers is also being done by the U.S. Navy, which has produced parts for drones by using a printer; Shell, which has made oil rig components; and the energy arm of Lloyds Register.
Printing parts in a rough sea might be challenging, given the minute tolerances at which the printers operate. But even if they were printed at a service center in a nearby port, that might still be highly attractive when compared to the time and cost of flying a part halfway around the world.
However, a Maersk spokesman said “we have not taken any decisions about taking the initiative further.”
Industrial quality 3D printers can be expensive, especially those that make products out of metal, costing up to $1 million each.
New Opportunity? Some logistics companies are responding to this new print demand.
UPS has installed printers at many of its retail locations and a company called Cloud DDM has built a facility with 100 3D printers adjacent to UPS’s Worldport hub in Louisville, Ky.
Co-location on the UPS campus, along with innovative manufacturing technology, allows a user in some cases to upload a design for a product in the evening and get it delivered the next morning by UPS, a CloudDDM spokesman explained.
UPS said CloudDDM’s “solution will be fully integrated into our portfolio of services, including service part logistics and our Next Day Air network. Additive manufacturing has been around for a long time. But it’s only now operating on an industrial scale and at a speed that will enhance and transform the manufacturing sector.”
Wohlers said even a small business with a couple of employees can produce 100,000 prototypes in a year.
“Previously, many years ago, it was all very manual and you’d be lucky to produce 5 percent of that with two people in one year,” he said.
3D printers are also being used increasingly to make architectural and educational models.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is widely used in medicine already. Medical teams will use scans to make models before complex surgeries. The consultant Roland Berger said additive manufacturing “holds a large share of the dental crown and bridge market… More than 30 million crowns, copings, and bridges have been made on AM machines in the last six years” and “experts estimate 10,000 copings are produced every day using AM.”
About 42 percent of the money spent last year for 3D printing was for production, and he said “If you look at the growth curve, it’s exponential. It’s definitely headed toward 100 percent. It will never reach 100 percent because companies will continue to use it for prototyping, tooling, drilling, cutting guides, templates and visual models.”
Aviation Sector. One of the most visible adopters of the technology is General Electric.
It has begun manufacturing fuel nozzles for its LEAP jet engines using 3D manufacturing. Eighteen of the nozzles, which atomize the air/fuel mixture, will go into each of the engines, and GE has more than 9,500 LEAP engines on order. The company is exploring making other components with 3D printers for the LEAP engine, which will be produced by CFM International, a 50-50 joint venture between GE Snecma, a subsidiary of France’s Safran.
The weight of the nozzles will be reduced by 25 percent using the technology and their lifetime is increased by five-times using additive manufacturing. GE said 3D printing “allowed engineers to use a simpler design that reduced the number of brazes and welds from 25 to just five.”
Wohlers said reducing the number of parts can be hugely important because of the tremendous amount of paperwork and certification that goes along with each part in an aircraft.
3D printing has the potential to alloy manufacture highly complex shapes and redesign products so that they can be made much lighter—with sometimes surprising results.
Take something as ordinary as the seatbelt in an airplane. The Saving Project, a U.K. consortium of seven companies, said a traditional steel belt weighs 155 grams, if it is made of aluminum, 120 grams. Make it out of titanium using a 3D printer, the weight can be cut 77 grams. In an Airbus 380 with 853 seats, the weight savings when compared to the steel buckles would be 72.5 kilograms.
By using less fuel, an airline may realize cost savings of 2 million euros, or $2.2 million, over the lifetime of the plane.
Raw Materials. Today, most 3D printing is done with polymers, not plastics. Wohlers said about $640 million was spent on materials for 3D printers last year, $460 for polymers and the remainder for metals and other materials, including ceramic.
Most of that, $298 million, was for photopolymers, which are liquids that harden when exposed to ultraviolet light, and about $160 million was for thermoplastics which melt when heated.
Thermoplastics—the stuff that the interior of your car and most of the things we use today are made of—tend to be much more durable.
Much of the thermoplastic is sold in filament form, stored on spools and fed into the printer. However, a German firm, Arburg, which makes plastic injection molding equipment, has made a 3D printer that uses standard granular material.
“The user does not require a special material, but can use his customary one. The price difference lies at a factor of one hundred,” an Arburg spokesman said.
UL estimated the overall raw materials market at more than $500 million in 2013, with an estimated sustained growth of up to 30 percent each year.
While the market for materials for 3D printers is growing rapidly, most are sold in small quantities—carton or bucket lots, not container loads.
Widely used plastics include acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA) polycarbonite and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), while the most common metal powders used are titanium, aluminum, nickel, steel, copper and various alloys, said Meha Rathod, a research analyst at Transparency Market Research.
Transparency in June published the report, 3D Printing Materials Market—Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2014-2020, in which it estimated 60 percent of the material used in 3D printers is plastics and 25-28 percent metals, most used in the automotive industry.
By weight it estimates 2 million metric tons of material was consumed, 970,000 metric tons of plastic, with most of the remainder being metal powders.
Similarly, the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF) said 499,214 short tons of metal powder were produced in North America alone. The United States produces about 40 percent of the global tonnage. Metal powders are fine grained, similar in consistency to talcum powder.
James Dale, vice president of member and industry relations at MPIF, said a lot of metal powder moves in 5,000-pound bulk packs that are about the size of a pallet. But if you went to an additive manufacturing shop, he said you might likely find 20 gallon carboys or cans about the same size as a one gallon can of paint filled with metal powder.
Many 3D metal printers make use of metal powder in a process called powder bed fusion. A layer of fine metal powder is laid down and a laser is used to fuse the particles together. A new layer of powder is then deposited and the process is repeated thousands of times to create a part.
There are other techniques for using metal, however—a company called MX3D is planning to build a 24-foot pedestrian bridge over a canal in Amsterdam this year, using robots equipped with welding arms.
“The plastics processing market is changing: short product life cycles, increasing variant diversity and the demand for individual products lead to a growing need for the production of high-quality parts as one-off items or in small batches and for individualizing mass-produced articles,” Arburg said.
Those are trends that could benefit the growth of 3D printing.
Container Threat? A container-shipping forecast by the Danish shipping bank Danmarks Skibskredit this spring cautioned that 3D printers “could put a drain on volumes,” with tighter supply chains requiring fewer transfers of intermediate products and parts and goods traveling shorter distances.
But while providing services to the 3D printing industry might be an exciting opportunity for some parts of the transportation industry, it seems unlikely to affect companies moving full containers or truckloads anytime soon.
“If you’re making coasters for soft drinks or trash cans or flower pots you probably won’t be 3D printing those because they are very low cost, low in their complexity, they are usually very simple and in high volumes,” Wohlers said.
“The more the technology is embraced, the need for these raw materials will expand. The options for new materials will also grow as current needs are met and new uses of the technologies become viable,” he added.
“We feel AM will impact shipping in finished goods development due to the creation of smaller micro-factories. These factories will be more regional or even placed more locally. This micro-manufacturing will be one method of manufacture that will evolve in this space. How this will effect shipping overall is still to be determined, keep in mind that raw materials will need to be shipped to these factories, as well as the finished goods made the traditional way,” Bates said.
“It could be a technology that does indeed effect sizable displacement,” said Timothy Persons, chief scientist of the Government Accountability Office. “Sizeable doesn’t mean 75 percent or some huge number, it just means it will be something beyond just the realm of… prototyping.”
The experts that GAO spoke to did not see additive manufacturing “as displacing traditional manufacturing entirely except in certain cases where you’re building relative low rate of production or low volume but with increased complexity and design.”
But he said as 3D printers “become more capable, as the unit price drops, as the quality control issues are answered, as materials are standardized and the base of materials is broadened… then I think you’re going to see some shift, although I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens sort of overnight or in some radical way.”
This article was published in the September 2015 issue of American Shipper.