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Supply Chain News: New 3D Printing Technologies Look to Support Mass Production


Adidas to Use New Technology to Produce 1 Million Soles, While There Could be a Be a Breakthrough in Metals Printing

July 6, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

So called 3D printing, also sometimes referred to as "additive manufacturing," appears ready for prime time in many areas, such as at GE's aircraft division, which plans on using the technology in a big way for its upcoming its Advanced Turboprop (ATP) engine, which will power the all-new Cessna Denali aircraft.

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Then there is a new technique called bound-metal deposition, with the potential to change the economics of 3D printing using metals.

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Additive parts will cut that engine's weight by 5%, the company says. (See GE Makes Major Strides in 3D Printing, as Advances in Metals-Based Composition Opens Up Many New Applications.)

But the rap is that 3D printed parts are too slow and expensive to be used for making things in mass quantities - it can take two days to create just one a complex object in some cases, for example. Therefore, the 3D focus has been on things like parts, certain medical devices, or custom dental crowns that are produced in small batches or even just one of a given specification.

But that perspective may be dated. First, as many have noted, 3D printing is largely a digital technology that is advancing at something like "Moore's Law" rate of progress, referring to the observation in 1965 by the late co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a given size computer chip was doubling every 1-2 years, reflecting tremendous increases in processing power.

But there's more.

The Economist magazine reports that some of the new methods of 3D printing now emerging are effective for much higher volumes of production.

For example, athletic footwear maker Adidas has started to use a remarkable form of what it calls "digital light synthesis" to produce the soles for its shoes, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer. The technique will be used in a couple of new and highly automated factories in Germany and America to bring 1 million pairs of shoes annually to market much more quickly than by conventional processes - weeks instead of months.

It works like this: It starts with a pool of liquid polymer held in a shallow container that has a transparent base. An ultraviolet image of the first layer of the object to be made is projected through the base. This "cures" a corresponding volume of the polymer, reproducing the image in perfect detail. That now-solid layer attaches itself to the bottom of a tool lowered into the pool from above.

The container's base itself is permeable to oxygen, a substance that inhibits curing. This stops the layer of cured polymer sticking to the base as well, and thus permits the tool to lift that layer slightly. The process is then repeated with a second layer being added to the first from below. And so on. As the desired shape is completed, the tool lifts it out of the container. It is then baked in an oven to strengthen it.

The technology is said to be 100 times faster than existing polymer-based printers, making digital light synthesis competitive with traditional injection molding.

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Then there is a new technique called bound-metal deposition, with the potential to change the economics of 3D printing using metals, which is much trickier than using polymers. With this technology, objects can be built at a rate of 500 cubic inches an hour, compared with 1-2 cubic inches an hour using a typical laser-based metal printer, fundamentally changing the economics for 3D printing.

There are still many challenges - mass production using traditional methods is generally highly efficient. And for many goods, it is still difficult to replicate the dexterity of the human hand in production processes, notably in apparel.

But as wages in China rise, up by double digit percentages every year, some of its mass-production lines are being fitted not just with robots but the first 3D printers as well.

And as global supply chains shorten, companies will want to use 3D printing to meet the demands of local consumers, as the technology develops at an incredible rate.

Do you think 3D printing will soon be able to produce part at scale? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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