There is a behind-the-scenes shakeup on the factory floor, as companies incorporate more uses for 3-D printing to get their products to market faster and address consumer demand for more personalized products. The goal is to boost productivity and profitability.
The trend is creating a challenge for companies who must train their workers on the latest 3-D skills and create new job roles to oversee design, prototyping and production. These include 3-D lab technicians, 3-D print experts and 3-D print coordinators.
The pace of change is mind-boggling. A decade ago who would have imagined we would be using 3-D printing to personalize cosmetics and dentistry, print body parts and use it to make spare parts for a wide range of industrial applications?
"We are moving towards 3-D printing as a main action [manufacturing] platform," says Jennifer A. Lewis, ScD., core faculty member at the Wyss Institute. "It's no longer just for prototyping."
For a peak at how 3-D printers are revolutionizing manufacturing, one can examine the work at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Scientists there have developed what they call MM3D, (Multimaterial Multinozzle 3D printing). Using this method, a 3-D robot can switch between up to eight different printing materials, enabling the creation of complex shapes in a fraction of the time of current machines. Each nozzle is capable of switching materials at up to 50 times per second, which is faster than the eye can see, or about as fast as a hummingbird beats its wings.
Right now extrusion-based 3-D printing allows a broad palette of materials to be printed, but the process is extremely slow and can take days if it is a large part.
"This new technology is our attempt to solve this," says Mark Skylar-Scott, Ph.D., a research associate at the Wyss Institute.
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A broad swath of industries could be impacted by this advance, including aerospace, automotive, medical and robotics, says Lewis. "A large number of companies are moving away from conventional manufacturing to digital manufacturing," she says. "There are many reasons for doing so: You are closer to the customer; you can customize your products more readily; and you can deliver them much more quickly because 3-D printing eliminates the need for expensive tooling, molds and other equipment."
To demonstrate how MMD works and how it opens up new vistas for design, the Wyss team built a millipede-like robot made of stiff and flexible material to mimic "legs and muscles" so it can walk.
"The goal is make the whole process simpler and faster," says Skylar-Scott. "It's a first step."