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From Prototyping to Production: Is 3D Printing Technology Finally Prepared to Make the Shift?

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As we noted with a press release earlier this week, Airbus Group’s 3D printing subsidiary company APWorks has released the world’s first-ever fully 3D printed motorcycle, the “Light Rider”. The electrically-powered machine was 3D printed in Scalmalloy material, an aluminium-magnesium-scandium alloy engineered by Airbus, which produced a motorcycle that is 30% lighter than most conventionally manufactured e-motorcycles. It looks exhilaratingly modern, and sounds like it would be a tremendously fun motorcycle to ride around on. But, the implications that APWorks latest creation may have on 3D printing as a whole could be much more than just an additively manufactured joyride.

light-rieder-3D-printed-e-bike-by-APworksThis fully functional 3D printed motorcycle serves as the epitome of the rise this emerging technology has taken from prototyping to use-end production. For years now, many have seen 3D printing as mainly useful for rapid prototyping and not much else. But, with new development in both 3D printing technology and its corresponding materials happening on a daily basis, it looks as if the long-awaited transition from prototyping into production is finally underway.

What’s even more enthralling about the APWorks’ motorcycle is that the use of 3D printing doesn’t seem to hinder the functionality of the Light Rider at all, in fact, it promotes lighter weight and a complex design that would have been impossible to construct using traditional techniques like milling or welding. This proves that 3D printing technology is capable of more than just acting as a supplement for other conventional production methods, it can actually improve them in a number of different ways.

APWorks_Light_Rider_1.2016-05-20-16-15-01 (1)As a whole, Airbus Group seems set on increasing the use of 3D printing for their aerospace endeavors as well, having recently expanded their facility in Munich, adding a new material research laboratory and partnering with Siemens to establish their so-called “Aerospace Center”, which will use 3D printing technology to develop electric and hybrid aircraft propulsion systems. The global electronics company Siemens seems especially determined to carry additive manufacturing into the age of use-end production capabilities, aside from the Airbus Group, they’re also partnering with HP to help 3D printing technology make the transition from prototyping to use-end production.

HP’s recently unveiled Multi Jet Fusion system is another major sign of this inevitable technological transformation into short run production of highly functional components. Using their 3D printing software, Siemens will aim to actualize the full potential of HP’s 3D printer, which can print at 10 times the speed for about half the cost of existing 3D printing systems. HP ensures that multi-color and multi-material capabilities will soon come to their MJF technology, and could help nudge their new system into competition with Stratasys’  Objet’s Connex3 Polyjet, which is considered by many to be the most advanced printer currently on the market.

HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer
HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer

As technological capabilities improve and price points decrease, it looks as if 3D printing technology will become an vital part to use-end production, and companies like Airbus and HP are making the biggest pushes of the year thus far. The next project for Airbus may be even more ambitious than the production of the Light Rider, as the French aerospace company has recently filed a patent on a 3D printing process that would enable them to 3D print the exterior of a plane in its entirety. Another major aerospace company from America, Boeing, is currently implementing 3D printing into their production process as well, mainly for fuel nozzles, sensors, and fan turbine blades for its Boeing 777x line.

3D printing innovation is clearly being driven by the aerospace industry, particularly because of their need for adequate metal 3D printing technology. Although I personally believe that we’re well on our way to having production-ready 3D printers in manufacturing facilities across the world, there are current a number of obstacles that need to be overcome. Hinderances like high price points and material restrictions still stand in the way of the 3D printing takeover (although this is becoming less and less of the case as time goes on), while a recent study form the Carnegie Mellon University proved that 3D printed metals, particularly titanium, has led to developments dealing with porosity, and could potentially lead to much stronger metal-based materials in the future.

Still, in an industry that is expanding and evolving day-by-day, I’d be hard-pressed to find a 3D printing enthusiast who doesn’t believe these issues will be overcome. Thanks to the recent endeavors by companies like HP and Airbus, we are on the cusp of the new-age for additive manufacturing, shifting both the conversation and technology from prototyping to production.

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