The 3D printing (digital manufacturing) market has had a lot of hype over the past few years.
Most recently, it seems this technology arena has entered the “trough of disillusionment,” as 3D printing stock prices have taken a hit.
But the fact remains: this exponential technology is still in its childhood and its potential for massive disruption (of manufacturing and supply chains) lies before us.
This is a blog about 3D printing’s vast potential – our ability to soon 3D print complex systems like jet engines, rocket engines, cars and even houses.
But first, a few facts:
- Today we can 3D print in some 300 different materials, ranging from titanium to chocolate.
- We can 3D print in full color.
- We can 3D print in mixed materials – imagine a single print that combines metals, plastics and rubbers.
- Best of all, complexity and personalization come for free.
What Does It Mean for “Complexity to Be Free”?
Think about this: If you 3D print a solid block of titanium, or an equal-sized block with a thousand moving components inside, the time and cost of both 3D printings is almost exactly the same (the solid blog is actually more expensive from a materials cost).
Complexity and personalization in the 3D printing process come for free – i.e. no additional cost and no additional time.
Today, we’re finding that we can 3D print things that you can’t manufacture any other way.
Let’s take a look at some of the exciting things being 3D printed now.
3D Printing Rocket Engines:
In 2014, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV) body in one of the nine Merlin 1D engines (a print that took less than two days, compared with a typical castings cycle measured in months).
Even more impressive, SpaceX is now 3D printing its SuperDraco engine for the Dragon-2 capsule. The process resulted in an order of magnitude reduction in lead time, taking it from initial concept to the first hotfire in just over three months.
On a similar note, Planetary Resources Inc. (PRI) is demonstrating the 3D printing of integrated propulsion and structures of its ARKYD series of spacecraft. This technology has the potential to reduce the parts count by 100x, with an equal reduction in cost and labor.
3D Printing Jet Engines:
GE has just demonstrated the 3D printing of a complete, functioning jet engine (the size of a football), able to achieve 33,000 RPM.
3D printing has been used for decades to prototype parts – but now, with advances in laser technology, modeling and printing technology, GE has actually 3D printed a complete product.
GE engineers produced this model of a GEnx jet engine using an advanced 3D printing technique called direct metal laser melting.
Xinhua Wu, a lead researcher at Australia’s Monash University, recently explained the allure of 3D printed jet engines.
Due to their complexity, she noted, jet engine components can take anywhere from 6 to 24 months to manufacture. But with 3D printing, the manufacturing time can be cut down to something like one to two weeks.
“Simple or complex, 3D printing doesn’t care,” she said. “It produces [parts] in the same time.”
3D Printing Cars:
This year, Jay Rodgers from Local Motors built a 3D printed car.
It is made of ABS plastic that has been reinforced with carbon fiber.
As they describe, “Everything on the car that could be integrated into a single material piece has been printed. This includes the chassis/frame, exterior body, and some interior features. The mechanical components of the vehicle, like battery, motors, wiring, and suspension, are sourced from Renault’s Twizy, an electric powered city car.”
It is called “The Strati,” costs $15,000, and gets 80 kilometers range on a single charge. Today the car takes 44 hours to print, but soon the team at Local Motors plans to cut the print process to less than 24 hours.
In the past, producing a new car with a new design is very expensive and time consuming – especially when it comes to actually designing the tooling to handle the production of the newly designed car.
With additive manufacturing, once you’ve designed the vehicle on a computer, you literally press *print*.
3D Printing Houses:
In China, a company called WinSun Decoration Design Engineering 3D printed 10 full-sized houses in a single day last year.
They used a quick-drying concrete mixture composed mostly of recycled construction and waste material and pulled it off at a cost of less than $5,000 per house. Instead of using, say, bricks and mortar, the system extrudes a mix of high-grade cement and glass fiber material and prints it, layer by layer. The printers are 105 feet by 33 feet each and can print almost any digital design that the client's request. The process is environmentally friendly, fast and nearly labor-free. Manufacturing is a $10 trillion dollar business ripe for disruption.
We will continue to see advances in additive manufacturing dramatically changing how we produce the core infrastructure and machines that makes modern life possible.
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