Digitization is three-dimensional

A 3D printer is actually a fairly simple concept: a machine that creates objects from a raw material based on a predetermined plan. However, the development of such devices (although started in the 1970s) was much more difficult, which is why affordable and high-performance models have only been launched in recent years.

This new generation of printers has also been warmly received by a large group of enthusiasts. The “building plans” for various objects – mostly entertaining in nature or spurred on by the spirit of discovery of the developers – were diligently shared and tested. The fledgling scene quickly had its first scandal by printing functional weapons, which permanently damaged its reputation.

In the professional field, the adaptation was much slower, although the possibilities here were more extensive from the beginning: due to the flexibility with which a 3D printer can produce a wide variety of objects, the technology has a great potential for disruption for many economic fields. However, the great revolution proceeds at a rather leisurely pace, hampered by high costs (including patents), slow print speeds and material problems.

As part of ubiquitous digitization, 3D printers are changing our complete understanding of production and personal consumption. While the development process is slower than the initial hype had hoped, acceptance remains limited to a few pioneering companies; However, the possibilities of 3D printing seem endless.

Definition of digitization

Digitalization is, quite soberly speaking, simply the transfer of formerly analogue processes to digital ones. Even if we are currently increasingly encountering these and similar terms, this is a very old and simple process, because almost every form of digitization is rewarded with efficiency increases, cost reductions and new, previously unknown possibilities. No wonder we humans have always been very interested in her.

Due to the accelerating technical progress and the mutual support (new technologies enable new technologies …) digitalization has gained so much speed in recent years that it has now penetrated into all areas of our lives and is indispensable from there. This digital transformation is a technological, socio-cultural, economic and intellectual process that brings with it gigantic upheavals.

The digital transformation in particular creates unprecedented opportunities for companies – but it also lurks with considerable dangers!

Definition of 3D printing

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process in which different levels of material (mostly plastics, but other components are also possible) are layered on top of each other to create three-dimensional objects.

The raw material is liquefied by heating and applied to the appropriate point by means of fine nozzles. Other systems, such as special powders, are also available, but are much less commonly used.

If all the necessary layers of the desired object have been created on, a finalization in the form of cleaning and grinding of the edges is usually required. Depending on the substance used, a wide variety of objects can be produced in this way.

A digital 3D model or a CAD model is required for printing. Since the technical and software handling of the devices is still far from easy, the operation of 3D printers remains a rather complex field.

Market Overview 3D Printing

The market for 3D printers is surprisingly sharply divided: in the price segment around 1000€there are products for the private user, whose use is usually limited to decoration (the most common blueprint is a plastic figure by Keanu Reeves) or the simplest functional items. Entry-level models for €300 are available, but suffer from low print resolution and other limitations. Devices for private end users only offer the processing of simple plastics, which limits the possibilities of use, but at least enables comparatively low material costs.

In the professional segment, acquisition costs quickly rise to the hundreds of thousands of euros, but therefore offer significantly more options. This allows printing with more stable materials, including metals. Due to the sheer size of the equipment and the enormous heat that is generated in them, they are hardly suitable for use outside industrial plants with appropriate safety precautions.

Due to pending patents, the cost of printers is often astronomical. Prices for raw materials and energy costs can also be significant. However, individual companies are already achieving long-term economic success only through 3D printing, while the process is used in other sectors of the economy to support or expand the business model.

Possible applications for companies

The potential of 3D printing is extremely far-reaching, but can be divided into two rough categories: 1. is the production of known objects in a new, advantageous way and 2. the creation of new objects that could not be produced by previous means

Improved production

The real potential of 3D printing became known to many only through the media attention Amazon received in professional circles due to a special patent: the use of 3D printers in delivery vehicles, which are supposed to print the ordered product while driving and to hand over to the customer on arrival still warm. This concrete idea has remained remarkably quiet since then (it will probably be some time before the actual market is ready), but the interest of a global giant like Amazon demonstrated how seriously the technology is to be taken.

The construction company, which no longer has to store materials and transport them with great effort before they can be installed, since a 3D printer on the construction site produces the parts on site, is also a well-mentioned example of future use cases.

With this concept of the “mobile factory” also printed products could be brought to hard-to-reach areas (e.g. developing countries with poor infrastructure), the plumber at the customer appointment print the required pipe part in his van or the breakdown service could produce the saving spark plug at the roadside.

All these examples fall into the category of “better production”, as they are superior to our previous production methods (production at site A, transport by place B for use on site C) due to greater flexibility, speed and decreasing expenditure for transport.
Especially in the automotive and aviation industries, 3D printers from the above-mentioned points are already being used today and help to produce important components directly on site without long supply chains if required.

New products

The second main category of interesting use cases is the creation of products that would not be produced without 3D printing, or would only be produced with the greatest effort. Especially in medicine there are many possible applications here: the production of tissue and organ parts by the use of living cells instead of liquid plastic is an exceptional example, since the resulting treatment options would simply not be possible without 3D printing. In addition to the use for laboratory tests, the first real successes for patients have already been achieved.

Fully-fledged organs for transplants are one of the ambitious goals – and not completely unrealistic. Many patients also benefit from personalized prostheses, especially people without access to the expensive and elaborately produced artificial body parts.

Finally, new materials and especially composites, which can only be produced in 3D printing, are to be mentioned: due to the layer-by-layer structure of the printed products, for example, the production of components that achieve the best results in thermal insulation thanks to thousands of smallest air inclusions is possible. Metal/plastic composites created in this way would simply be impossible without the new technology.

Disadvantages

The use of 3D printers is still associated with high costs. Thus, not only are the requirements for the technical know-how of the user enormous, but also the costs are considerable. In addition to the expenditure on the raw material, which is limited – at least in the case of plastic printing – the devices require enormous amounts of electricity. This is a problem that is exacerbated by the still very high time required for printing.
Thus, the production of even small items can take several hours and during this time the electricity costs increase.

Environmental and health damage as well as hazards caused by the high temperatures caused by pressure must also be taken into account.

Conclusion 3D printing

Therefore, before deciding to purchase or use a 3D printer, all aspects should be carefully considered and cost-effectiveness carefully considered. In this way, the technology can successfully open up new business areas, be used in product development or avoid failures as “Plan B”. Due to the high expenditures, however, the large-scale use – in mass production, for example – is usually not yet profitable.