Recently Wall Street Journal tech contributor Christopher Mims revealed a glimpse of the future of manufacturing. In a February article (“How 3-D Printing Could Change Manufacturing”) Mims discussed the marriage of two new, cutting-edge technologies, and the impact they could have.
The first is the emergence of carbon fiber, a man-made material known for its strength and lightweight properties, already in use today in airplanes, race cars and wind turbines. Ounce for ounce, Mims noted, it’s stronger than steel or aluminum. But it’s expensive, and surprisingly labor intensive. Hence the second technology: manufacturing objects made of carbon fiber on a 3-D printer. Marry the two, notes Sims, and things get interesting.
A new BMW auto utilizes a carbon-fiber frame that extends its range by making it significantly lighter. Greg Mark, CEO of MarkForged, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. sells a machine that prints 3-D carbon-fiber composites. That’s significant because in the past the composite had to be cut, layered and molded into plastic sheets infused with carbon fiber by hand, a very tedious manual process. That’s been like applying an 18th century technique to a 21st century material – until 3-D printing came along. “We give you the strength of metal for the cost of plastic,” says Mark.
And get this: the printer costs only $5,000, and is already being used by at least one automotive manufacturer to make parts for the machines that make cars. “We’re the parts behind the parts,” says Mark. And by replacing milled metal parts with hard printed carbon fiber composites, machinists can be more nimble, trying and discarding new ideas in days rather than weeks.
At another manufacturer of 3-D printers, founder Robert Swartz of Impossible Objects LLC says “our long-term goal is to replace injection molding.” His company combines fabrics like silk, polyester and Kevlar with any 3-D printable plastic for a variety of uses including high temperature applications. The printer works basically like an inkjet printer, spraying plastic out of print heads as tiny droplets at high speeds.
Neither company is rich or famous – yet – because new manufacturing processes must be thoroughly vetted. But the handwriting seems surely to be on the wall.
Today’s 3-D printers are mere toys compared to what’s coming, mostly because they can’t (yet) produce parts strong enough for most uses. But as the examples above suggest, those days are numbered. Soon enough, 3-D printing will have ‘its moment.’
As Mims concludes: “Traditional manufacturing won’t go away – we still make glass in essentially the same way as the Romans, after all – but it may never be the same again.”