Standing in front of my tiny booth in a giant exhibit hall for a conference on medical device technology, I was lucky to get eye contact from a passing engineer, let alone a conversation. Not good for drumming up business. So, I took some parts I had in the bottom of my backpack and put them on my table. They were medical device components that were 3-D Printed in metal…instant change. I had a conversation going with three people within a minute. This was another real example of how everyone is excited about metal 3-D Printing. But why? What is there to be excited about?
The ability to take a model of some object on a computer and make a physical copy with one machine, 3-D Printing or Additive Manufacturing, has been around for more than twenty-five years. But all of those machines in the past, and the vast majority in use today, create with some sort of plastic material. This capability has changed the way we engineers design, test and make products. However, we could only go so far because plastic is, well, plastic. Plastic is not that strong, you cannot get it hot, and chemicals like to dissolve it. Once we got over the excitement of getting our parts back within a single day, we started to want more. We wanted metal. Even for prototyping, we wanted something that could last.
We wanted metal because so many products are manufactured out of metal due to the strength and durability it offers. From aircraft struts to artificial hips, metal is the right material. The problem is to get the shape needed for a metal part using traditional methods. We have to either remove chunks with machining, bend it into shape, or make an expensive mold and cast the part. All of these take time, multiple steps and expensive tools. 3-D Printing allows us to go directly from the computer to a part with no expensive and time-consuming cutting or casting.
After decades of trying and a couple of false starts, several companies figured out how to use a laser to melt a layer of powder with a laser or electron beam and let the melted powder solidify into a part. Sounds simple but very hard to do accurately. Persistence, old fashioned research and good engineering solved these problems and now we can define a part for a product on our computer and send it to a metal 3-D Printer. A day or two later we have an actual usable part. This changes everything.
If you are not in engineering or manufacturing you most likely get the cool factor. We can make a complex metal part with from a pile of metal dust and a laser. If you are in the business of designing or making physical products you also get the cool factor, but what gets you really excited is how easy it is. Getting metal parts made traditionally is a serious pain. Not only does it take time but because there are many steps you have to manage that whole process, usually across multiple vendors.
Best of all, and what gets me the most excited, is we are no longer limited by what traditional manufacturing methods are capable of. We can make whatever our imagination comes up with. Shape and complexity no longer hold us back as we create the products of tomorrow. Our imagination is the biggest limit on what we can produce to solve our technical challenges. That is why metal 3-D Printing is so exciting.