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3D Printing: Closing the gap between concept and product

Posted by: Sally Fallon 20 Aug 13 - 12:39PM  | Engineering

British engineers already have an outstanding heritage in bringing ingenious concepts to the market, but 3D printing is set to revolutionise the process of product development. First versions of the technology were developed as early as 1984, but it has only become affordable and accessible thanks to recent advances giving SMEs the ability to quickly and simply turn a concept into a tangible model or working prototype.

Its availability has become so widespread that electronics vendor Maplin even announced that it will sell a consumer version on the high street, while the Government announced this week that 3D printing design would become a part of the national curriculum for design technology lessons. As a result, even organisations with limited means can bring a product to market just as quickly as multinational corporations can.

Designers no longer have to rely on costly and time consuming machining or modelling. Instead, a blueprint for the product can be generated by computer, materialised in a printer, assessed in a real world form and amended and reprinted if required in a fraction of the time required by traditional prototyping techniques such as modelling, machining, or moulding. This reduces the time it takes to go from concept to marketable product and also ultimately cuts the cost of development. Furthermore, this technique allows for the realisation of otherwise impossible-to-manufacture designs.

The process involves a printer laying down successive layers of a powdered material, such as a plastic or even metal, following blueprints created by computer aided design. According to one report prototyping is currently 3D printing’s biggest application, but over the past 10 years its use in the actual production of parts has grown rapidly to 28% of the total global product and service revenues. That growth is set to continue as well, with an economic think tank describing 3D printing as one of the biggest potential growth areas in industry over the next decade thanks to the nearly unlimited design opportunities it offers.

“3D printed products are appearing everywhere, from toys and jewellery to automotive, aerospace and biomedical applications,” says Nick Jones, Managing Consultant, Jonathan Lee Design Services. “The ubiquity with which the technology has taken hold is highlighted by NASA’s experiments to print everything from food, to replacement spacecraft parts which prevents the need for extravagantly expensive supply shipments every time something breaks in orbit. Companies need to ensure that they continue to evolve in terms of both assets and personnel to take advantage of the clear benefits that rapid changes in technology like 3D printing can bring.”

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