Big data is pushing 3D printing to its tipping point

Marketing Program Manager for Data Warehousing, IBM

A tipping point is the crucial junction after which evolution becomes revolution. From that moment, an object or process takes on new characteristics and begins transforming events. Often, however, several enabling technologies must also be developed and then incorporated into the solution.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a perfect example. Big data and analytics technologies are intensifying 3D printing’s effects on our increasingly connected world. My colleague James Kobielus has discussed how cost-effective 3D printing is accelerating the mass customization of products in many industries, and big data analytics is playing a critical role in this trend. He lists a number of areas in which the big data contribution is pivotal: rich interactive computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) visualizations to drive modeling, prototyping, design and engineering, among other processes; robust big data platforms to store, secure, archive and otherwise manage data; and monitoring of sensor data coming from printers and other connected devices within complex fabrication processes. These trends feed off concurrent improvements in simulated and algorithmic CAD, ubiquitous worldwide Internet connectivity, Internet of Things (IoT) file handling by cloud infrastructure and increasingly affordable memory and computational power for print devices themselves. printing has been around for so long that several key US patents have already run their term. Around 2009, printing patents expired that covered “fused deposition modeling” using plastics, and in 2014, original patents on “selective laser sintering,” which covered innovative printing using steel, aluminum and copper, also ran out. With these technologies now freely available, products can now be printed that were once difficult to imagine, let alone create.

Revolutionizing engineering

Objects created by 3D printers are making their mark in material engineering, a discipline that has always focused on balancing load-bearing strength, weight, durability, cost of materials and time to produce. Alcoa, a leader in material production for more than 125 years, hopes to extend its term of leadership using a derivative of 3D printing called additive manufacturing. But in producing durable engine parts that must hold up under rotational stress and 2000°F temperatures, Alcoa faces requirements at the extreme. And although Alcoa has dabbled in 3D printing since the 1990s, attempting to produce custom dies for casting nickel alloy engine parts, only recently has the company been able to change how it does business.

Combining 3D printing with CAD, Alcoa inverted the custom die manufacturing process, changing it from subtractive to additive—abandoning the whittling of metal down to size and adopting layer-by-layer building based on CAD file input. The traditional sculpturing approach, which took as many as 30 weeks, has been shortened to as few as two to eight weeks. What’s more, overall process costs have been cut by 25 percent. “We’re really at the beginning of what I would call a second Industrial Revolution,” says Klaus Kleinfeld, Alcoa’s CEO. "You go from idea to product in no time. It's almost like production at your fingertips.”

Exploring new frontiers

And that’s only the beginning of what 3D printers can do. How about a 41-foot structure made from printed bricks, each costing about $0.20? A process invented by Ecovative combines mushroom roots with cornstalks to produce the printer’s “ink,” achieving the design goal of waste-free free use of recyclable components. Or consider how Autodesk, drawing on and then extending the CAD framework, plans a chair design by using simulation algorithms to calculate how to enhance weight-bearing characteristics while cutting weight. The company used a multi-material printer to produce a chair stronger than its solid alternative—but weighing 70 percent less. Just imagine the possibilities—a multi-material printer could create a door in a single pass, fusing metal hinges and joints into the plastic door body.

Or take motorcycle body design, which has always closely examined the trade-offs between component strength and weight. Lightning Motorcycle teamed with Autodesk to create motorcycle swing arms using an advantageously conceived composite material. Because the typical aluminum frame brings limitations of weight and cost, the two companies created a trial plastic printed swing arm. But the plastic-only creation was unable to endure the weight and stress of the bike’s rear-wheel connection, the swing arm, to the frame. The next iteration, which overlaid carbon fiber on the plastic swing arm, also failed, this time because of poor bonding. The working version used 3D printing to include microfibers in the plastic, sealing the carbon fiber to the swing arm. The working prototype uses aluminum only at its ends—bringing great cost and material savings. Moreover, such a multi-material swing arm can gain strength at flex points based on usage patterns, not unlike human skeletal frames.2

Disrupting the status quo

In the United States, defense contractors take the long view in bidding military hardware. They want to win the bid—but even more important, they want to control the supply chain for the duration of the equipment’s 50-year life cycle. Now, with access to an Internet connection, some software and the right printer, replacement parts can be printed in even remote regions of the world.

Similarly, with these same prerequisites, plastic firearms are now just another 3D output. US foreign policy has relied in no small measure on sanctions restricting items such as oil equipment, weapon parts and centrifuges. But if combining materials, software and an output device can reproduce nearly anything, then foreign policy may be the next sector disrupted by 3D printing.

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