Advances in 3D Printing
While many people consider 3D printing a recent technology, it has actually been around for more than 30 years. Early predictions were that 3D printers would be in every home by now, but widespread adoption of additive manufacturing had to wait for other areas to catch up, including materials science, engineering techniques, digital transformation in the supply chain and advances in the chemical industry. Even when all these areas came together in support of 3D printing, the biggest driver of acceptance was actual the manufacturing world’s newly revived focus on satisfying the customer, and the chemical industry’s drive to invent innovative materials that satisfy unique customer requirements.
How Materials Shape Manufacturing
Manufacturers have always been at the mercy of the materials available to them, and every great leap in manufacturing technology has been influenced in some way by advances in materials science. Consider the Bronze Age giving way to the Iron Age, leading through history to the Age of Electronics and High Tech. In every case, advances in materials enabled engineers to design new products and production methods that took advantage of the new material. Today, we have 3D printing which started with a few polymers and now has branched out into metals, food, ceramics and even biological materials. As a result, engineers have developed innovative ways to design parts to be lighter in weight, more resilient or lower cost by combining the unique capabilities of 3D printers and advanced materials created by the chemical industry.
3D Printing and the Supply Chain
3D printing is having a major impact on the design and optimization of supply chains across all industries. Already we see airlines, utilities and manufacturers eliminating or reducing their inventory of spare parts. They can do this by 3D printing the required components at the point of need. They no longer must stock the same parts in multiple locations to reduce down time of an expensive asset such as an airplane. As a result, they have increased asset utilization and reduced cost.
In many cases, rather than manufacture and build components to be shipped to OEMS or higher tier manufacturers, companies now print these parts in house as needed. While the printing speed may not be able to support high-volume manufacturing yet, it is more than adequate for prototypes, short runs and spares. In the near future, companies may outsource much of their component manufacturing to nearby “printer farms” that will fulfill their requirements. This will reduce the volume of shipments around the globe, decreasing the environmental impact of manufacturing.
More than ever, chemical companies will be the backbone of all manufacturing, as they create and deliver new materials designed to take advantage of 3D printing.
3D Printing and the Chemical Industry
The most forward thinking chemical companies are working directly with customers and the manufacturers of 3D printers to optimize materials with the right combination of characteristics to satisfy the customer’s needs and ensure that the printers run efficiently. Examples of this level of partnership include BASF working with HP and Farsoon and Solvay working with Reico and Arevo Labs. These companies are inventing new resins, new polymers and powdered metals that will advance manufacturing into a new era of productivity and innovation.
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