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3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing), Rapid Prototyping and Computer Aided Design, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The news for automated design and engineering tools is excellent, and many firms that manufacture such tools are enjoying booming business.  Advances in CAD (computer-aided design) and CAE (computer-aided engineering) hybrids are revolutionizing the way in which new designs are tested and enhanced.  The combination of disciplines creates virtual prototypes on computers that make R&D faster and more efficient than ever before.
One of these automation tools, Finite Element Analysis (FEA), checks a computer-generated model for flaws.  It analyzes how the model would react to extremes in heat, vibration and pressure by breaking it down into small pieces or cells in a three-dimensional grid.  The computer applies simulated stimuli to one cell in the model and then tracks the response of that cell and those that surround it.  The results often keep a flawed design from progressing to production and distribution.
The next big thing to define automated R&D was Design of Experiments (DOE).  This statistical technology helps researchers program FEA to concentrate on particularly vulnerable areas, rather than running thousands of scans on all parts of a model, which may not be necessary.
Another stride in automation is behavioral modeling, a software application that forms the results found by the combination of FEA and DOE into family trees of cause-and-effect scenarios.  Major variables such as model size and power are represented by large limbs, which branch out into scenarios showing how those variables react to different situations.  The process allows researchers to isolate deal-breaking problems early on and pinpoint exact circumstances in which problems will likely occur.  Industries adopting this new technology include automotive manufacturing, aerospace and shipyards.
Rapid prototyping via additive manufacturing (sometimes referred to as 3-D printing since the technology is somewhat like inkjet printing) is helping to boost the results of design engineers.  There are numerous companies, both large and small, that offer additive manufacturing equipment and related services.  For example, U.S. firm Stratasys ( offers industrial additive printers.  Other major 3-D printer manufacturers include 3-D Systems Corp. (, EOS GmbH (,and ETEC GmbH (
The use of additive manufacturing technology is evolving.  To begin with, a small number of manufacturers are now using additive printers (sometimes called “fabs”) as small factories, churning out customized, finished products one at a time.  Today, these mini-manufacturing plants can create complicated parts or machinery one piece at a time, using this inkjet-like technology to fabricate on the fly.  Also, the type of material utilized has improved.  Today these systems use materials such as ceramic powders or metal powders as well as plastics in order to deposit exacting layers that create a final model or product.  Eventually, nanotechnology may intersect with advanced additive printers for the manufacture of exacting components from nanocarbons.  The better, industrial quality additive printers generally cost $10,000 and up.
Rolls-Royce completed a process that uses 3-D printing to build the front bearing housing of its Trent XWV-97 engines.  The process uses a beam of electrons to melt layers of powdered alloy, which then solidifies to create the housings.  Rolls-Royce’s Trent XWB-97 engine, which is capable of 97,000 pounds of thrust, was successfully used to power an extra-wide-bodied A350 XWB.  Similar technology was used by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia to build a small engine in its entirety using a laser instead of an electron beam.
GE is looking to additive manufacturing to produce more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its Leap jet engines, a giant leap in capacity from current 3D printers.  The company invested substantially in enhancements to its aerospace supply division and had its nozzle production up and running.  That was only the beginning for GE and its focus on 3-D printing.  The company acquired Germany’s Concept Laser GmbH, a maker of 3-D printing and other technologies, for $599 million.  GE estimates that these acquisitions could save $3 billion to $5 billion in annual manufacturing costs, particularly in jet engine manufacturing.  Additive designs helped GE eliminate 845 parts from its new Catalyst turboprop engine (thereby significantly cutting the engine’s weight) which launched in 2019.  GE opened a $40 million, 125,000-square-foot Center for Additive Technology Enhancement near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which uses 3-D printers extensively.
The big news in 3D printing is increased speed.  Startup company Carbon, Inc. (, formerly Carbon3D, Inc., uses a trademarked technology called Digital Light Synthesis in which printers project light continuously through a pool of resin.  Objects gradually solidify onto an overhead platform that lifts them from the resin until fully formed.  The results are similar to those made by conventional injection molds and take a fraction of the time used by other printing methods.  Carbon’s M2 printer is internet-connected and uses software and sensors to quickly form prototypes and production parts in low volumes.  Meanwhile, HP, Inc. is working on two new 3-D printers that promise high-volume production at speeds up to 10 times faster than competing units.
Tens of thousands of free, downloadable product, toy and gadget designs that hobbyists can use to turn out items on their home 3D printers can be found on the internet.  Leading firms in this sector include 3D Systems (formerly Z Corporation) in the U.S., Shapeways in The Netherlands and Germany’s EOS, in addition to Stratasys (the owner of the Objet and Fortus brands).
One area with particularly exciting promise is the creation of custom medical devices, such as joint replacements, via additive printing.  For example, Integra LifeSciences ( uses additive technology to manufacture ceramic bone substitutes for use by orthopedic surgeons.  In fact, medical applications are among the fastest growing uses of this technology.  Researchers at Princeton University used 3D printing to create a bionic ear, while University of Cambridge scientists printed retinal cells to create complex eye tissue.  In dentistry, this includes dentures, dental bridges and dental crowns.  Commercial applications have been designed that create these items using digital scans of a patient’s mouth that is read by special 3D printers.  Likewise, today’s advanced hearing aids, so small that they fit within a patient’s ear, must be manufactured on a personalized basis—a perfect market for 3D printing.
Additive printing is already appearing at bargain prices for use in the home by hobbyists, or for use in small engineering and design offices.  3D Systems ( acquired Desktop Factory to offer printers such as its Figure 4 Standalone at modest prices that are small enough to sit on a desktop.  The machines can fabricate design models and custom prototypes.  Meanwhile, NextEngine ( makes a 3-D desktop scanner that can perform a high-definition scan of a three-dimensional object and then create a digital file of that scan.  The file can then be used to generate a duplicate of the object in an additive printer.
For industrial purposes, additive manufacturing is truly a revolutionary technology, as engineers can quickly, and at low cost, hold a prototype in their hands that formerly would have been built slowly by hand or in a machine shop at high cost.  More recently, the technology has evolved to the point that some types of final products, particularly those that formerly required complex machining, or those requiring customization or personalization, will soon commonly be manufactured with additive methods.
Additive manufacturing also has important implications for products and components that might best be manufactured on an as-needed (“just-in-time”) basis in locations near the end-user.  This could save valuable time and shipping costs and avoid delays in final assembly of complex products.  However, as additive manufacturing is a robotic, software-driven type of manufacturing, it is not likely to lead to a lot of new jobs on the factory floor.
Printer manufacturers such as ETEC ( developed 3D printed orthodontic aligners that can deliver proper biocompatibility, stability, flexion and strength.  ETEC was acquired by Desktop Metal in February 2021 for $300 million.

SPOTLIGHT:  Desktop Metal
Desktop Metal, Inc. ( is a Burlington, Massachusetts-based manufacturer of 3D metal printers.  Its Desktop Metal Production System is a metal printing press for mass production, with over 400% greater productivity over the closest binder-jet alternatives and more than 100 times faster than laser powder bed fusion systems.  These systems are designed to print a broad range of alloys, including reactive metals such as titanium and aluminum.  This process enables the use of metal powders that are 80% lower in cost than laser powder bed fusion metals, delivering parts at 1/20th the cost.  The technology is being adopted by major Fortune 500 companies.  In May 2023, Desktop Metal entered into a merger agreement with Stratasys Ltd. in a $1.8 billion transaction.

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