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3D technology, additive manufacturing speeds production

3D modeling, printing and prototyping are transforming how products get designed, manufactured and marketed. Experts explain how 3D technology is transforming manufacturing.

When NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed antenna-array supports for its FORMOSAT-7 Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellite mission, it looked to RedEye. The 3D printing and additive manufacturing consultant was tapped to produce the antenna-array supports, a move that heralded the first time that parts meant to work in outer space were designed and created with 3D printing.

In other, often less glamorous industries, 3D technology, including 3D modeling, prototyping and printing, is making new strides in how products are modeled and produced. Numerous product-development applications stand to benefit from what this convenient and accurate method of design and prototyping can accomplish.

Gartner research named 3D printing as one of the top 10 strategic technology trends for 2016. David Cearley, a Gartner vice president, wrote: "3D printing will see a steady expansion over the next 20 years of the materials that can be printed, improvement in the speed with which items can be printed and emergence of new models to print and assemble composite parts."

Thanks to 3D printing, companies can create precise virtual models of an entire product or part well in advance of full-scale manufacturing and production. In fact, for many facets of product lifecycle management and manufacturing, 3D technology is a game changer.

Speeding production through 3D

The main benefit of 3D modeling technology comes from the rapid prototyping that it allows. With 3D modeling, a virtual model can be designed and "imaged" long before a physical one has to be produced. This avoids the intense tooling and manufacturing investment that was routine in the past.

3D modeling allows people to visually inspect and better understand products, according to Adam Clark, CEO of Tangible Solutions, a consultancy and provider of 3D printing, additive manufacturing and engineering design services for the manufacturing industry. Clark said 3D modeling also tells a manufacturer exactly how it will make and warehouse its products.

Knowing the key characteristics of a product and their implications provides more flexibility in developing products and producing them on demand. "The demand to do high [production] volumes is going to decrease because 3D models can be on a server, and [we] pull them out when we need to 'print' them again," Clark said. "This is what some would refer to as the 'digital thread.'"

3D modeling and printing also help expedite management of product configurations, making it easier for manufacturers to offer more options. 3D technology also allows users to better track variations in product attributes as they change from designer to designer, as well as control what changes get made. "Right now, we have a customer that has thousands of 2D drawings, that are out of date and have been copied, faxed and PDF'd over and over," Clark explained. "They are hard to read, and [we] can't manipulate these files. There is a lot of re-engineering that needs to be completed. With 3D modeling, it's on the computer, easily organized and categorized." Clark added that files are downloadable and change-tracking is available, so the next person who comes along can see where a product design started, its current state and the reasons it evolved the way it did.

Additive manufacturing building up its base

3D prototyping and modeling are hardly new to the design, engineering and manufacturing communities, but they are not fully mature by any means. While 3D technology has advanced in many ways, and the software has become more capable over the years, applications that truly improve productivity capabilities are a more recent phenomenon.

One that Clark highlights is additive manufacturing, which, according to industry standard ASTM F2792, delineates the requirements for joining materials to form objects based on 3D modeling data. He said the rise of additive manufacturing has been a catalyst for developing 3D technology because the 3D models have to be sophisticated enough to handle the "very complex organic design structures."

3D technology also plays a key role in virtual reality, which allows designers, for example, to accurately simulate how a product will be used. The advantages to engineers and manufacturers are numerous.

3D technology is also getting a boost by its ease of use on the Internet, which has workforce implications, according to Clark. Thanks to greater exposure to 3D printing and the availability of more garden-variety online tools, such as Google Sketch, modeling software and other 3D technology caters to the ways Millennials prefer to work.

"In the next five years, I suspect that 3D modeling technology will be refined further and thus allow a broader spectrum of users to gain from its benefits," Mark Walluk, staff engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., said. "A wider audience will likely uncover new applications that can improve product performance in a variety of sectors."

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