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3D Printing Growth: Unstoppable Even If "Moore's Law Doesn't Apply"

By Diego Tamburini, Aug 14, 2014

Article first appeared in Line//Shape//Space
Reprinted here with permission

Consumer 3D Printing growth dominates much of the technology discussion lately - for better and, perhaps, for worse at times. Every day we see more applications (3D printed ice cream, anyone?), and 3D printers are now appearing at The Home Depot. Even Amazon is getting on board with a new 3D marketplace.

This is all fantastic news. But we must also keep in mind that 3D printing growth as an industry requires incredible commitment and investment. This is especially true for its potential sweet spot as a substantial player with product and industrial manufacturing. Printing your own plastic figurine is great, but printing an entirely new part - to be put in actual use - on demand in minutes instead of hours is a game changer.

The technology industry has become pretty accustomed to rapid acceleration of performance. For the 3D printing industry, the reality is much different.

One major hurdle is scalability. The time it takes to 3D print something grows at the third power since it is a function of its volume. Let’s put it into real terms. Think about a cube with one-inch sides that takes one hour to print. If you want a cube with sides twice as long, it takes eight times as long to print. Then another cube twice as big as that takes 64 hours to print. These rates will not get inherently faster as we’ve traditionally seen in the software and hardware industry.

"Many people have thought that something like Moore’s Law applies to 3D printing," said Autodesk CEO Carl Bass at the recent O’Reilly Solid conference. "Despite the fact that my 3D printer has microprocessors in it, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply."

Bass further explained, "As someone who writes software, in some crazy way we could stand still, do nothing, and next year our software was twice as fast. We will not have that advantage when it comes to 3D printing. We will need to experiment, explore, invent, and discover - and come up with new ideas. So I think the improvements in 3D printing will be dramatic, but the path on which they improve will be completely different."

The growth and continuous improvement of 3D printing is unstoppable, even if on a different scale and timeline. The current limitations - such as speed, materials, surface finish, accuracy, build volume, and more - will be overcome in the next decade, and 3D printing will continue its penetration in production. Eventually, it will establish itself as the process for complex, low-volume, high-value, highly customizable products, and it will coexist with subtractive, becoming one more tool in the manufacturing toolbox.

For its part, the manufacturing industry is stepping up to the plate with the incorporation of 3D printing. GE Aviation, a major proponent of additive manufacturing, recently took its commitment to a new level with the announcement of a $100 million new plant "to build the world’s first passenger jet engine with 3D printed fuel nozzles and next-generation materials, including heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and breakthrough carbon-fiber fan blades woven in all three dimensions at once."

The trajectory of 3D printing - outside the well-documented consumer applications - is significant and well on the way to blazing its own trail. Check out more of the latest:

With these examples and numbers in mind, it’s an exciting time for 3D printing growth. Unlike our hardware and software brethren, however, it will be slow, steady, and experimental that wins the race.

About the Author

Diego Tamburini is the Manufacturing Industry Strategist at Autodesk, where he focuses on defining the vision for Autodesk in manufacturing and evangelizing thought leadership in the industry.

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