At the Plastics News Executive Forum, Terry Wohlers described how you can take a three-dimensional computer drawing and use a technology called additive manufacturing to make just about everything from airplane wing structures to limited-edition chairs.
Additive manufacturing formerly known as rapid prototyping builds up, or prints parts layer by layer from 3-D model data. That's opposed to subtractive manufacturing like milling and machining, where material gets shaved away.
AM turns out highly complex parts that would be hugely expensive, or even impossible to make, using traditional tooling, said Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates Inc. His Fort Collins, Colo., firm specializes in AM and rapid product development.
These systems don't care how complex the products are. You can print, you can build, you can grow parts that are highly complex, he said.
Wohlers and Matt Hlavin, whose family-owned injection molding firm, Thogus Products Cos., launched a rapid manufacturing company, led a March 8 discussion on trends in the technology at the forum in Summerlin.
AM, and 3-D printing, is getting a higher profile. In February, The Economist magazine ran a cover story, Print me a Stradivarius: How a new manufacturing technology will change the world. Hewlett-Packard Co. is selling HP-brand 3-D printers made by Stratasys Inc., priced under $20,000.
AM is still used to make prototypes, and parts for test marketing but Wohlers said the process is now much broader and has its own ASTM committee. The technology can turn out highly customized, limited-edition products such as exotic chairs or a lamp that looks like its made entirely of swarming insects and higher-volume products like iPhone covers.
Some parts can go from concept to production in just four days, he said. That's the beauty of this you don't have to lock yourself into a single design and make thousands or millions of them, he said. You can build parts on demand.
He showed one slide after another during his talk, some whimsical, like platform shoes and a woman's dress resembling chain mail. Some were serious: aircraft wing structures that consolidate a large number of parts, and air-duct systems for fighter jets.
Some were high-volume, but customized. Wohlers said companies use AM to turn out 6,000 dental crowns a day.
Hlavin said Thogus Products in Avon Lake, Ohio, got into AM to break away from the pack of 8,000 U.S. plastics processors. We're beating each other up for margins, and we're also competing globally, he said. The company invested in Stratasys machines. Thogus officials wanted to include a physical model with proposals for molding work.
But that part of the business grew quickly, leading Thogus last year to start a new venture, Rapid Prototype + Manufacturing LLC, to build 3-D prototypes and functional end-use parts for other firms. Hlavin said about half of the business comes from services for other plastics processors.