The new industrial revolution

MELANIE KEELEY (pictured), marketing director, D2M Solutions, discusses the concept and implications of 3D printing and how it could impact the region’s industries

01 May 2013

Can you imagine being able to just “print” spare parts by pressing the print button on a desktop printer? The dream is now a reality - whilst sitting at your desk, the 3D printer will build your parts or components directly from ‘digital’ computer-aided-design data.

3D printing (or additive manufacturing as it is also called), has recently been grabbing headlines worldwide. This technology sector that has taken the best part of 20 years to become known within advanced industrial enterprises, has suddenly received international attention for the role it is expected to play in the manufacturing companies of the future.

The Urbee (urban electric): the world’s first
3D printed car. Car body printed on a
Stratasys system (courtesy of Kor Ecologic)

In the USA, audiences have heard how talk show host Jay Leno uses the technology to create customised parts for his private collection of vintage cars (for which spares are impossible to find); President Obama discussed 3D printing and what an important role it is expected to play in US manufacturing in his recent State of the Union address when he discussed new job creation schemes through advanced technology and innovation centres. The Economist magazine recently hailed the progress of 3D printing technology “a third industrial revolution” and Nasa is using 3D printing to advance their space exploration programmes using 3D printed, customised parts. In 2012 the UK published an in-depth study into the future potential of 3D printing and the vision for manufacturing in 2025.

What is 3D printing or additive manufacturing?
3D printing is the process whereby an accurate 3D physical model can be “printed” directly from CAD data. No tooling is required and the 3D part is built layer by layer in an additive process directly from digital data. This is why 3D printing can be referred to as “additive manufacturing,” as opposed to traditional manufacturing methods whereby materials are normally subtracted from the original form by various processes such as milling, grinding, etc.

3D printers range from desktop size to large
additive manufacturing systems able
to produce large 3D parts

Initially 3D printed models were being used more for prototype models rather than final parts. By creating a physical prototype a designer or engineer could use his model to test for form, fit and function, prior to moving to real production tooling. Basically, he could iron-out any potential errors using his prototype model saving himself a lot of time and costly errors. The advantages of having quick access to prototype models are numerous and permit designers and their teams to rapidly investigate new design iterations and share them with their teams, for approvals, before going to production.

owever, even though prototype models are an important part of new product development, ‘prototyping’ has not been the cause of so much recent excitement surrounding 3D printing. The recent interest has come about because with the development and improvements of 3D printers and the type of materials they can process, it has become apparent that they can also be used to create strong and accurate final or end-use parts. For short-run production or low-volume and customised requirements, 3D printing can be a very cost-effective way of producing parts. Every day, new and innovative products are being produced on 3D printers, from medical models for surgery planning to functional parts for the automotive and aerospace industries; customised tools jigs and fixtures can be created in just about any dimension and form required in hours as opposed to weeks using the traditional methods of designing, making changes and then creating production tooling.

Auto tail light – prototype model in
translucent materials for realistic
product visualisation and testing

The technology has opened up a new area of manufacturing innovation that places very few restrictions on the type of products that can be created, even opening up the possibility of using new geometries and organic forms that were very difficult to create using previous manufacturing methods. Some parts can be completely redesigned with reduced numbers of parts because internal geometries can be printed ‘as one’ further reducing labour and assembly costs.

How can additive manufacturing lead to greater industrialisation in the Middle East?
One Dubai-based company, D2M Solutions FZE, is leading the way in introducing 3D printing to the Middle East market and demonstrates additive manufacturing (AM)  on their 3D production systems from market leader Stratasys Ltd. According to D2M, the Middle East has an opportunity to jump to a new technological plane through adoption of advanced additive manufacturing. A company spokesman explained: “The global crisis has forced governments to reassess their plans for industrial development, and take innovative and proactive measures to bolster the manufacturing sector, and this is why 3D printing or additive manufacturing has been getting so much attention in both the UK and the USA. However, there is nothing to stop Middle East companies from gaining a real technological advantage with 3D printing, by leveraging the technology to develop an advanced regional manufacturing hub to produce niche products.”

Coffee maker – functional model in
PC and PPSF for high temperature
and chemical resistance

The UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular have outlined robust industrial development programmes in order to start creating locally manufactured goods in diversified sectors such as consumer appliances, aircraft parts and interiors, plastic goods, industrial machinery, tools dies and moulds etc. In many cases AM makes sense for low volume production because it has the advantage of flexibility so customisations are limitless and it also helps to maintain intellectual property within the enterprise, because there is no need to import expensive tools and moulds from abroad. The savings in expensive tooling, materials and transportation make local production of goods an attractive option. Middle East companies can benefit by having access to rapid prototyping models in order to test their product concepts early on in the development stage, which will help them to be more innovative and create products that are suitable for local market demands. Additionally AM technology can be used to create a  wide range of manufacturing tooling (thermo forming and blow moulding tools for plastics, sheet metal forming tools, etc), and customised jigs and fixtures. In the UAE, aerospace and aircraft interior manufacturers are already taking advantage of 3D production systems to create interior parts in hours and Saudi manufacturers are producing spare parts with AM systems.

Blow mould created with added
manufacturing technology. A fully
functional mould done in ABS plastic;
no tooling required

When does additive manufacturing make sense for GCC industries?
Additive manufacturing can play a role in the production of low volume and customised products. There is a current trend to substitute traditional materials including metals with new materials that can take advantage of AM. The GCC industries can investigate the option of using AM parts in their products that can reduce material costs and facilitate manufacture on demand. Producing parts locally, means there is less dependence of imported goods, industrial equipment and spare parts, speeding time  to production.

With economies of scale, traditional manufacturing with ‘hard tooling’ for mass production continues to play a role, but there is a “cut-off’ point whereby for low volumes or customised parts, AM can be a real alternative. Additive manufacturing has some great advantages such as being able to create new and internal part geometries that are nearly impossible to manufacture otherwise. The wide variety of materials with various properties that can be used in AM are helping companies to create completely new ways of manufacturing, far removed from the engineering restraints of the past. Therefore additive manufacturing can present the GCC region with opportunities for industrial production that don’t require the traditional mass production factory set-up.

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