Image credit: Jonathan Juursema

October 23, 2013

By now, we have all heard or read about additive manufacturing, more commonly called 3-D printing. Machines deposit layers upon layers of material in a three-dimensional design created by a computer-generated model. But many of us may not be as aware of the next breakthrough in the industry: 4-D printing. 4-D demonstrations were initially made early in 2013, but on Oct. 22, the University of Colorado-Boulder issued a press release saying its researchers had taken one step further by producing 4-D printed composite materials.

4-D printing adds the dimension of transformation to 3-D printing, whereby the manufactured material changes when subjected to certain conditions, like being submerged in water or being exposed to hot or cold temperatures. The researchers at UC-Boulder were able to create a self-folding box that used 4-D printed material as hinges. In the future, the creation of such materials could benefit manufacturers that operate under harsh or unpredictable conditions. Further research and development has the potential to create material that can be shipped and stored compactly, making transport and storage easier. This type of technology could create self-assembling structures to be used in places where traditional construction may not be possible.

Although these types of projects are at least a few years away from commercialization, ongoing improvements to the field of additive manufacturing have the potential to improve U.S. manufacturing overall. Until very recently, 3-D printing was used primarily to produce models and prototypes. But the industry is seeing increased use for manufacturing components for larger products. While it is unlikely to replace mass production supply chains of inexpensive products, it has the potential to significantly reduce the costs and lead time when developing new products because the same machine can produce numerous different products, removing the expensive, time-consuming requirement for mold making or other manufacturing adjustments.

Moreover, 3-D printing could contribute to the growth of U.S.-based manufacturing, especially in niche markets for high-value, low-volume products. Personalized consumer products currently are the largest part of the industry, but high-value, low-volume products have a large potential for growth. Specifically, the medical devices, automotive and aerospace industries could see a significant increase in the use of 3-D printing in the next five years.

3-D printing has the potential to thrive in these industries because it does not face the same limitations as traditional molding. Complex products that were previously assembled from numerous parts can now be printed from a single computer model. Furthermore, less material is consumed; it uses only what is structurally necessary.  This means parts can be much lighter than parts made using conventional methods, which could improve fuel efficiency. Because traditional manufacturing is subtractive and 3-D printing is additive, there is the potential to reduce waste material by as much as 70 percent.

Conventional manufacturers of automotive and aerospace parts could soon see more competition from additive manufacturing. Boeing already uses 3-D printing on about 200 different parts, and NASA successfully completed tests of a 3-D printed rocket fuel injector. Because 3-D printing can reduce transport costs by moving parts manufacturing to the assembly sites, it could become difficult for conventional producers to keep their share of the market. In fact, the size of aerospace and automobile parts export market could actually contract overall.

The wider impact of 3-D printing on the global supply chain will not be on the movement of finished goods but on inventory. The use of additive manufacturing removes the need to keep stocks, especially of parts that are not commonly used. It could also help with remote locations where there is limited space for excess storage, conditions found in military operations or for space-related activity. Indeed, a 3-D printer will soon begin testing on the International Space Station. The European Space Agency recently announced the launch of the AMAZE project, which will focus on improving metal-based additive manufacturing processes to create space-grade metal parts.

While 3-D printing has the potential to affect certain niche industries and will likely contribute to any resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, it is unlikely that it will replace conventional low-end manufacturing centers anytime soon, leaving the door open for growth on both ends of the manufacturing spectrum. But with further advancement of the technology to create materials and structures that can adapt to their environment, the reach of the additive manufacturing sector could certainly widen.

Will Additive Manufacturing Replace Conventional Manufacturing? is republished with permission of Stratfor.