3D printed sculpture

I worked in computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) delivering the first working plantwide system for the auto business. Manufacturing must do every step in the most efficient way possible such that the overall process is optimized. Each part must also meet stringent quality standards that are different for the use each part has in the assembly. As an example, a modern automobile has 25,000 to 70,000 parts, contained in hundreds of subassemblies that go together. Customers get upset, and government agencies get involved if any of those parts don’t meet their mean time to failure (MTTF) targets, which targets are many years.
3D printing is just one method of producing a part. 3D printing is a very slow method; As a rule, it produces parts with poor hardness and strength compared to other methods of forming the same material. It produces parts with limited choices of materials. And 3D printing produces parts with lousy fit and finish characteristics. 3D printing does not produce completed assemblies. It produces parts. Parts don’t make an end product.
As a simple example, think of a steering wheel. Steering wheels are plastic, generally over metal frames. Consumers like sewn-on leather covers for them. Can you produce a steering wheel by 3D printing? You can produce something, yes. But it will not meet the strength and wear requirements. in an accident, it would probably break and penetrate the skin/body of the driver. And you can’t 3D print a luxury cover. Sure, one can compensate for a slow manufacturing process by having more production units. But that takes space on the factory floor, it takes more manpower to oversee it usually. And both of those things cost money. In manufacturing it’s all about three things:
  • Cost
  • Quality
  • Flexibility

One of the big lessons driven home to me in CIM was exemplified by Steve Jobs decision to junk Apple’s state-of-the-art robotic manufacturing plant. Why did he do that? The Apple plant was top-notch, and had no quality problems. It was not absolutely lowest cost, but it was quite good. In a word, flexibility. Jobs found out that to make changes to a robotic plant full of software required huge lead times. If he had accepted that, we would not have iPhones, iPods, or any of the new Apple products today. They would not exist because it would take extra years to get them to market while the robotic/CIM people engineered the methods to produce them. And changes would be slower to implement.

3D printing has some flexibility. But it’s probably not as good as you would think. 3D printing’s flexibility is based on software. So backlog will be regulated by how efficiently designs can be done, implemented, and changed. But the cost per part and quality also have to be high for the production runs that repeat.

The auto business adopted 3D printing for prototyping decades ago. For that purpose it’s great. Manufacturers will rapidly adopt any method that works for them better. They have to. 3D printing in the home might happen. But I don’t see it as likely beyond hobbyists. The reason is simple. Consumers can get better manufactured items for a lot less through our industrial system. Running a printer is: A little smelly (if it’s plastic or metal), mildly toxic (if it’s plastic), requires expensive feed stock (expensive by the time the consumer gets it), prone to breakdown, and the end product is generally disappointing because products are made from multiple parts made from multiple different materials.
High-end 3D printers can be useful in vary specific situations as part of a support system. Having multiple printers that can make different material parts is very useful. Spaceships is one of those because transport/supply is either very expensive or impossible. It makes sense there. Similarly, military installations like Naval ships, submarines, or forward military bases could use that capability. Aircraft carriers have machine shops, just like universities do to support operations. 3D printing makes sense to add to that capability. Backed up by teams of engineers who can design, test and then send a completed design, it’s a great thing. That’s a killer app. Space and war-supply. Aside from that, it’s hobbyist stuff and specialty flexible machine shops like OMW who make small numbers of complex parts.