3-D Printing: A World Full of Plastics Engineers?

Man and woman looking at 3D printer

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Unless you’ve been living off the grid, you’ve likely heard quite a bit recently about 3-D printing. The technology has been getting considerable attention these days from the media, big business, entrepreneurs, doctors, artists—and even chefs. Although still small, the market for 3-D printing products and services is growing quickly, expected to reach $6 billion worldwide by 2017.

For those unfamiliar with this technology, here’s a quick background …

A 3-D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or a few other materials to build an object, layer upon layer in three-dimensions. Computer aided design (CAD) software or a 3-D scan enables the printer to precisely manipulate the plastics.

3-D printing is an example of “additive manufacturing” in which an object is built up in layers. Additive manufacturing typically produces little waste—which can help control costs and contribute to sustainability.

Depending on the type of plastic or material used, a 3-D printer can make furniture, medical and dental implants, automotive parts, footwear, jewelry, construction materials, musical instruments—the possibilities are almost endless. Plus, the printers can be mobile—they can be deployed on site to build components of a house or to rapidly create a lifesaving device on the battlefield.

Speaking of types materials, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), and nylon were largely the first types of materials used in 3-D printing, and they’re still typically the simplest to work with. The market for plastics used in 3-D printing today is a tiny part of the overall plastics market: only $70.5 million in 2012, dominated by North America (first) and Asia-Pacific (second). It’s expected to have compound annual growth of nearly 20 percent between 2013 and 2018.

So who actually is using 3-D printers today?

3-D Printing & Manufacturing

Most of this technology today is employed by businesses and the government—in particular, the defense department. And it has picked up a good bit of momentum. In fact, in 2012 President Obama created The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute to “accelerate additive manufacturing and 3-D printing technologies and increase our nation’s global manufacturing competitiveness.”

Nicknamed “America Makes,” it’s a public-private partnership headed by the U.S. military that includes companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE, and 3M, as well as companies that make 3-D printers, such as Stratasys and 3-D Systems Corporation. America Makes is located in Youngstown, OH, the heart of America’s rust belt, and has a very ambitious agenda: “to help the domestic manufacturing sector resume its prominence in the global economy.”

All this promising talk of transforming America’s manufacturing base is based primarily on the ability of 3-D printing/additive manufacturing to do two things: speed up and cut costs of manufacturing just about anything, from jet engines to eyeglasses. It offers flexibility, less waste and ease of prototyping—something any manufacturer would desire.

But it’s the applications that are receiving most of the attention today, many of them made possible by plastics. Some examples:

  • The healthcare industry has embraced 3-D technology to make personalized hip implants, dental crowns, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and more. For example, doctors last year used polyetherketoneketone (or PEKK) to replace 75 percent of man’s skull. Specialists initially analyzed and measured the patient’s head and then printed the new piece of plastic skull, including little surface details to make it easier to attach and to encourage cell growth.
  • 3-D printing and plastics played a key role in the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall.” Instead of destroying a priceless Aston Martin as called for in the script, filmmakers commissioned three models of the classic at one-third scale using poly(methyl methacrylate) (or PMMA). Because the model cars had to look realistic, with working doors and such, eighteen plastic car parts were “printed” and assembled in pretty much the same way they were in years past. The model Austin Martin’s were virtually impossible to distinguish from the original – even in close ups.
  • Our fighting forces are keenly interested in 3-D printing. For example, the Army has begun using 3-D printers in combat zones to quickly create a needed spare part or an on-the-spot fix for life-threatening situations. 3-D printers also are used in forward positions to test and create plastic prototypes for new equipment, which dramatically speeds up manufacture and delivery. And weapons designers are using 3-D printing to dramatically drive down costs and production time and to allow for ongoing design changes without retooling.

Desktop 3D Printing

In contrast to manufacturing, 3-D printing on the home front remains predominately a hobbyist or artistic adventure, although that is changing as the industry matures and printers become easier to use and more affordable. In 2012 only 35,000 “inexpensive” printers (i.e., less than $5,000) were sold—globally.

Business analysts expect prices for these “desktop” 3-D printers to continue to fall, which along with increased awareness, printing speed and material quality, could spur broader, mainstream consumer interest. They also expect plastics to continue to account for the primary material (typically called filament) used in home 3-D printing.

And new desktop-size machines now can process some used plastics into new filament, so 3-D printing enthusiasts can even create their own raw materials.

Although the desktop market is still young, there are many applications that suggest the potential of this technology, many of them made possible by plastics. Some examples:

  • During the 2013 Fashion Week in New York City, designers and students created a dress made out of polyester—using a 3-D printer. They used a new adaptable filament that is soft and flexible—it flexed and moved with the model’s motion, a significant advance from traditional filament materials that typically are solid and stiff after printing. Students used a desktop 3-D printer that retails for $2,200, demonstrating that 3-D printing holds the potential of allowing fashion-forward individuals to design and create their own bespoke clothing.
  • In November 2013 the company MakerBot launched a program “to put a MakerBot desktop 3-D printer in every school in the United States of America.” Public school teachers can register online to request a Replicator™ 2 desktop 3-D printer, a service plan and three spools of plastic filament that the company calls “the best, safest and most consistent filament” for its printers. Once exposed to this new technology, students likely will want more hands-on time than they can get at school, which could lead to increased sales and use of 3-D printers and associated plastic filament.
  • Along with the growth of desktop 3-D printing has come an explosion in CAD software, 3-D scanners and other technologies that enables individuals to create unique, personalized designs and products—in their own homes. Dads can create parts for toy trains, artists can create unique sculptures, do-it-yourselfers can create customized devices/adaptors/holders for electronics, crafty people can create personalized jewelry and accessories, and more.

One father even created a “cyborg” hand for his twelve-year old son who has been missing fingers on his left hand since birth—using a donated design, a borrowed 3-D printer and only twelve dollars’ worth of plastic.

If you think about it, these early adopters of desktop 3-D printing are involved in the processing, design, development, and manufacture of plastics products. Hmmm … Sounds a lot like plastics engineering. So will the widespread use of desktop 3-D printers create a world full of plastics engineers?

Worse things could happen.