Sunday, July 3, 2022

3-D printing comes of industrial age

Steve Lohr, 3-D Printing Grows Beyond Its Novelty Roots, NYTimes, July 3, 2022.

DEVENS, Mass. — The machines stand 20 feet high, weigh 60,000 pounds and represent the technological frontier of 3-D printing.

Each machine deploys 150 laser beams, projected from a gantry and moving quickly back and forth, making high-tech parts for corporate customers in fields including aerospace, semiconductors, defense and medical implants.

The parts of titanium and other materials are created layer by layer, each about as thin as a human hair, up to 20,000 layers, depending on a part’s design. The machines are hermetically sealed. Inside, the atmosphere is mainly argon, the least reactive of gases, reducing the chance of impurities that cause defects in a part.

The 3-D-printing foundry in Devens, Mass., about 40 miles northwest of Boston, is owned by VulcanForms, a start-up that came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has raised $355 million in venture funding. And its work force has jumped sixfold in the past year to 360, with recruits from major manufacturers like General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and tech companies including Google and Autodesk.

“We have proven the technology works,” said John Hart, a co-founder of VulcanForms and a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T. “What we have to show now is strong financials as a company and that we can manage growth.”

For 3-D printing, whose origins stretch back to the 1980s, the technology, economic and investment trends may finally be falling into place for the industry’s commercial breakout, according to manufacturing experts, business executives and investors.

Additive manufacturing:

3-D printing refers to making something from the ground up, one layer at a time. Computer-guided laser beams melt powders of metal, plastic or composite material to create the layers. In traditional “subtractive” manufacturing, a block of metal, for example, is cast and then a part is carved down into shape with machine tools.

In recent years, some companies have used additive technology to make specialized parts. General Electric relies on 3-D printing to make fuel nozzles for jet engines, Stryker makes spinal implants and Adidas prints latticed soles for high-end running shoes. Dental implants and teeth-straightening devices are 3-D printed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 3-D printers produced emergency supplies of face shields and ventilator parts.

Today, experts say, the potential is far broader than a relative handful of niche products. The 3-D printing market is expected to triple to nearly $45 billion worldwide by 2026, according to a report by Hubs, a marketplace for manufacturing services.

The Biden administration is looking to 3-D printing to help lead a resurgence of American manufacturing. Additive technology will be one of “the foundations of modern manufacturing in the 21st century,” along with robotics and artificial intelligence, said Elisabeth Reynolds, special assistant to the president for manufacturing and economic development.

There's more at the link.

And when each 3-D printer is equipped with a powerful artificial mind, and they communicate with one another....?

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