One of the most consequential aspects of 3D printing is the capability to produce objects that often cannot be manufactured using any other existing technology. At a fundamental level, 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, can consolidate parts in a single assembly. One famous example is the GE Catalyst turboprop engine, where 3D printing enabled the consolidation of 855 parts into 12 assemblies, reducing weight and simplifying the supply chain in the process. At a higher level, the technology allows the creation of “previously unimagined complex shapes,” noted Paul Benning, Chief Technologist for HP Printing & Digital Manufacturing. That creates unprecedented design opportunities, but to take full advantage of them, design engineers need to retool their thought process. “You have a world of designers who have been trained in and grown up with existing technologies like injection molding. Because of this, people unintentionally bias their design toward legacy processes and away from technologies like 3D printing,” said Benning.

3D printing hologram

According to some estimates, more than half of manufacturing employees will require retraining, as 3D printing and Industry 4.0–related technologies enter their workspace. “This effort requires collaboration across industry, academia and government to ensure that future design engineers are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution workforce,” Benning told PlasticsToday. Moreover, there will be a shift in existing roles, he added. “New elements of the design process will be introduced into engineers’ roles—they will need to learn the mechanics of 3D printing to become experts in the processes to support operational functions during production. New roles will also be created, such as reverse 3D engineers, for instances when 3D printing is used to build replacement parts for items that have no digital equivalent,” said Benning.

A shortlist of what design engineers should know about 3D printing, according to Benning, includes:

  • The new wave of design capabilities that allow the creation of previously unimagined complex shapes as well as durable prototypes and end-use production parts.
  • Thinking beyond cost reduction and speed optimization for existing products. The “true potential of 3D printing is realized when engineers can integrate the physics, software, materials and creative thinking around 3D printing to develop products that cannot be manufactured today,” said Benning.
  • In rapid prototyping applications, understanding that 3D printing enables the physical realization of initial ideas in a low-risk process. “Essentially, you can ‘fail faster’ using this technology,” said Benning. “Design changes are easier and learning cycles are faster, so you can use that extra time to create better products.”

Educating budding design engineers and re-training employees to operate effectively in this new environment requires a “holistic” approach that incorporates the supply chain, industrial engineering, materials science and manufacturing, according to Benning. A number of training programs have been established that impart the skill sets needed to shift “from old thinking and tap into new, creative ideas.” One such program, cited by Benning, has been developed at Oregon State University (OSU).

The students and faculty at OSU are working with HP to help translate basic research into technologies and materials, explained Benning. “For example, Oregon State University students are using 3D printing to design and build combustion, electric and driverless cars. The project, a collaborative effort with the University of Pennsylvania and Clemson University, will put one-tenth-scale autonomous cars into the hands of researchers nationwide.” And at Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing & Applied Sciences, the use of HP Jet Fusion 300/500 series 3D printers are allowing students to see and touch products they have designed and physically test them. It’s this type of hands-on experience that will “teach graduates how to think in 3D, iterate designs and produce future ideas using additive manufacturing,” stressed Benning.

Other universities should follow these examples and “build out programs that foster creative, new ways of thinking and designing,” said Benning. The future of advanced manufacturing depends on it.

Image: Sdecoret/Adobe Stock