Additive Manufacturing Technology – Changing The World One Layer At A Time

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Image of 3D printed prosthetic hand

Image: U.S. Food and Drug Administration – 3-D Printed Prosthetic Hand – blue (5229), Public Domain

A Glimpse Into The Future

In this post, I am going to walk you through a process I used to select my first 3D printer. This post is focused on printers that use a fused deposition modeling process or FDM.

Decide What You Want Your

I recall my 1st exposure to additive manufacturing. It was 1988 and I was a young engineer at McDonnell Aircraft, now Boeing. A group of us were taking a tour of a small research lab where another engineer was playing around with a large, expensive stereolithographic printer. His research was directed to figuring out how this new technology could be leveraged for aircraft manufacturing.

Stereolithographic additive manufacturing technology scans an ultra violate laser, in a predetermined pattern, across the surface of a molten bath of photo-curable plastic. This scanning process is repeated layer by layer to form the object.

The machine he was working with cost ~$100,000.00. Now, in 1988, that was a lot of money – even for advanced technology research. I recall watching in amazement as the laser beam skipped across the molten plastic bath creating the object as if by magic.

Additive Manufacturing In Today’s World

Fast forward 30 years. One can now pick up a stereolithographic 3D printer for less than $1000.00. Companies in every technology field are investing in additive manufacturing and commercializing products using the technology.

Products ranging from aircraft engine fuel nozzles to medial implants are being fabricated. According to Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm based Fort Collins, Colorado, an estimated 1,768 metal additive manufacturing systems were sold in 2017, compared to 983 systems in 2016, that’s an increase of close to 80%.

One key benefit that additive manufacturing, a.k.a, 3D printing offers is the ability to produce prototype parts in a very short time enabling designers to quickly evaluate and iterate on their design shortening the product develop cycle dramatically. Innovative products can be delivered to market faster and cheaper.

For the home enthusiast, 3D printing allows for custom brackets, fixtures and gadgets to meet virtually endless needs. In just one example, a home 3D printing enthusiast fabricated a bracket to replace a broken lounge chair support attachment. Instead of throwing out the broken, useless chair, this person repaired it with a component that he made on his own 3D printer!

Additive Manufacturing In High Tech Industries

Large, high tech companies are investing heavily in additive manufacturing and many 3D printed components are already being commercialized.

At Boeing, as reported in their Innovation Quarterly newsletter, the entire engineering design process is being re-imagined to leverage additive manufacturing. Design teams are “thinking additively” and leveraging 3D printing to come up with product configurations that are not producible with conventional manufacturing processes.

3D printing technology is being applied to missiles, helicopters, airplanes and space systems. In space systems, a team is delivering close to 1000 additively manufactured parts. Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft crew capsule NASA Spaceflight Awareness Award for levering additive manufacturing to reduce mass, cost and cycle time.

In the power generation industry, both General Electric and Siemens are investing millions of dollars in additive manufacturing. Both companies have built dedicated additive manufacturing facilities.  GE has commercialized 3d printed fuel nozzles for aviation gas turbines and Siemens has commercialized 3D printed fuel burner tips for land based turbines. These types of components require intricate fuel/air passages to enable efficient fuel consumption and lower emissions.

One 3D printed fuel system component commercialized by GE, eliminated over a thousand weld joints that would have necessary if the component was fabricated by traditional methods. In one of the Siemens applications, fuel burner tips are repaired and replaced with additively manufactured tips. Fuel burner tips are exposed to extremely harsh environments and having the ability to quickly repair these components saves the gas turbine customer significant time and money.

An example from the medical field, as reported by, is Johnson and Johnson. J & J has established a 3D Printing Center of Excellence to develop, among other things, a series of customized surgical tools that allow doctors to 3D print patient-specific tools that can be implemented during surgery.

Additive Manufacturing For The Home User

You may be wondering how all this investment by high tech companies with deep pockets benefits you, the home user. It’s a trickle down effect. Much like many of NASA’s developments have made into the main stream so too does investment by Big Business.

As more and more high tech companies leverage and commercialize additive manufacturing, the price of additive manufacturing machines and services will come down making them more accessible to the home user. More users drives up the number of 3D printing machines being produced which will, by nature, drive down the cost. As the number of machines increase, more and more printing material will be needed which will, in turn, drive down material costs.

In fact, there is an entire additive manufacturing industry infrastructure that is growing at an astounding rate. All of this growth works to make 3D printing more and more accessible to the budget-minded, home, school and small business user.

Image of BIBO Touch 2 3D printer

Until recently, 3D printing technology was a little out of my budgetary reach. However, I just purchased my first 3D printer – a BIBO Touch. This printer packs a lot of punch at an ‘accessible’ price point. See my earlier post on choosing a 3D printer for more info on the factors that went into my selection of this printer.

Printing materials are readily available in a variety of colors and materials giving the home user quite a bit of design latitude. Click here to view a number of different filament options available to the home 3D printer enthusiast.

The 3D printing movement has also led to a number of free software platforms for both designing and printing customized objects. For example, Thingiverse has an entire collection of 3D models that can be downloaded onto your printing software for free.

Join The Movement

Given the vast investment in and development of additive manufacturing technology, it is only a matter of time until the phrases ‘conventional manufacturing’ or ‘traditional manufacturing’ actually refer to additive manufacturing. It won’t be long until 3D printing becomes the new norm.

3D printing is no longer a dream or a ‘some day’ investment for manufacturers it’s a ‘must have’. I remember when my family got our first microwave oven. What a convenience to be able to quickly heat up your meal. Now, microwaves are found in every home, office and restaurant.

3D printing is experiencing the same explosion. I believe it is just a short matter of time until every home and school has at least on 3D printer. The economies of scale in the additive manufacturing industry will make this a reality very soon.

What will you create?


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2 Replies to “Additive Manufacturing Technology – Changing The World One Layer At A Time”

  1. Really enlightening post / Am I correct but are these 3D machines are now able to create gun to shoots bullets .This is the only drawback with this technology .But overall a useful if in the hands of a responsible person

    1. Thanks for the question Nigel. 3D printed guns tend to get a lot of somewhat negative press. There are, by far, many more positive things people are doing with 3D printing like printing prosthetic limbs and saving lives.
      I have not been following the gun making issue too closely but yes, with 3D printing/additive manufacturing one is essentially able to print almost anything they want. There are physical limitations to printing certain structures but, for the most part, printing any object or group of objects that can be assembled into a larger component is possible.

      To be fair to 3D printing, it is not the only manufacturing process that could be used to print guns. For example, if a person had a machine shop including a lathe and end mill that person would also be able to fabricate a gun.

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