Rocket engines, dentures, and knee replacements.
It is no longer a novelty hobby. A decade ago, affordable printers were introduced and people began to create unique plastic items in their own homes.
Manufacturers are relying more every day on 3D printing — known inside the business as additive manufacturing.
Numbers are the proof. The industry is expected to triple its size within eight years, to $85.5 million.
“It’s growing and growing as [3D printers] become more accessible,” said Angie Szerlong, industry manager of additive manufacturing at SME.
The 3D-printing industry has been around for quite some time. SME’s annual convention was held for its 33rd year this week at McCormick Place.
Rapid + TCT is the largest 3D Printing Trade Show on the continent. It boasts more than 350 exhibitors, and over 10,000 visitors. Nearly 400 Chicago students were scheduled to go on fieldtrips.
The first 3D Printers were created in 1987. They were extremely expensive and out of reach for most businesses. After the patents on 3D printing expired about 10 years ago, there was a boom in affordable household printers which brought the technology to a wider audience.
Over time, both industrial and desktop printers have become cheaper and more efficient. The industrial printers that can fill a room can also produce metal and ceramic components. They can produce car parts and rocket motors.
“You can get a great machine now for $4,000 versus $1 million” before, Szerlong said.
Manufacturers are adopting 3D printers because they can produce cost-effective custom parts that traditional manufacturing methods can’t.
Szerlong stated that this shift in manufacturing could lead to companies offering more customized products in the future.
Dentists can provide you with clear retainers or custom-made shoe insoles. Custom hearing aids, sports equipment such as hockey sticks and helmets or custom-made shoes insoles.
“That’s all made possible because of 3D printing,” Szerlong said.
She said that this type of manufacturing was seen as being more sustainable, because it uses only the materials printed and not large quantities of material like blocks of metal used in traditional CNC-machining.
Aerospace companies rely also on technology.
“You can’t find an aerospace or space company right now that’s not printing,” said Fred Carter, head of research and development at DMG Mori.
DMG Mori is headquartered in Hoffman Estates (a suburb of Chicago) and manufactures industrial 3D printers at Davis, California. These are sold to companies working in aerospace, automotive, medical and other industries.
Carter showed off a metal manifold made by his company. He said the piece, too complicated to be constructed by other means, was built specifically for the company’s 3D printers.
Many manufacturers are unable to afford the top-end 3D printing systems, which cost between $2 million and $3 million.
So some companies like 3D Systems specialize in making custom-order parts for other companies, said Jeph Ruppert, the firm’s vice president of technical business development.
The South Carolina-based company’s printers are used to make wax castings for jewelry manufacturing, which is a bigger part of the 3D printing business than people realize, Ruppert said.
Doctors and dentists can now create dentures and prosthetics in-house using their 3D printers.
Met-L-Flo Inc. in Sugar Grove (Illinois), near Aurora, switched from metal forging in 1989 to 3D printing. The company on Tuesday displayed a miniature model of the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions. The lions were scanned in 2015, according to Met-L-Flo program manager Katie Peterson.
The 3D printing industry is underrepresented by women. Women make up between 11% and 13% of the workforce according to Sarah Goehrke. Board director of Women in 3D Printing.
In 2014, the nonprofit founded by the organization promoted a more diverse workplace. The problem of female underrepresentation extends to the U.S. educational system. Many women are pushed out from engineering at a young age.
“We want to see the industry succeed and see people equipped to do the best work they can do,” she said.