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3D Printers Aren't Just for Hobbyists in Garages

As more giant corporations such as GE are buying up additive manufacturing companies, it's probably time to stop thinking about 3D printing as a hobby.

One of the big attractions of 3-D printing is that it’s so cheap and simple. Just come up with a design, and that nice little machine you bought for $499.99 at Staples will extrude it in layer after layer of warm plastic that hardens as it cools. And then you have…a plastic thing!

If you want your thing made out of metal, on the other hand, it can get complicated, quickly. This is from a white paper on “Additive Manufacturing Design Considerations for Production in Aerospace” available from Arcam, one of two European 3-D printing companies (which in the industrial space tend to call themselves “additive manufacturing” companies) that General Electric said today that it is going to buy for $1.4 billion:

Due to the temperature gradients during metal additive manufacturing processes, material properties and microstructure can be anisotropic in nature before performing post thermal treatment. Thermal processing can alter the microstructure to become more isotropic, but there still may be some orientation and geometric effects which remain. The effects may be seen on monotonic or dynamic properties.

No, I don’t understand either! But that’s sort of the point. We have been conditioned, when we hear the phrase “3-D printing,” to think of hobbyists in their garages and power to the people. That whole aspect strikes me as overhyped. Maybe this is just because I don’t have a garage and don’t really want any custom-made plastic things, but as Bloomberg Gadfly’s Chris Bryant points out, 3-D printer makers in general have been a stock-market bust lately.

Not so Arcam and SLM Solutions, the other company GE is buying. They’re not trying to return manufacturing to the home; they’re just pioneering new processes for making small metal things. Both involve metal powders being applied and melted layer by layer with electron beams (Arcam) or lasers (SLM), and usually require powder removal, thermal processing, surface finishing and machining afterward. The resulting products “are typically lighter and more durable than traditionally-manufactured parts because they require less welding and machining,” according to GE, and they generate less scrap. There’s also a lot more design flexibility, including the ability to layer different metal alloys in a single part.

So far Arcam’s equipment has been used mostly in making aerospace parts and orthopedic implants (“One out of 30 hip surgeries involves components that come from an Arcam system,” Chief Executive Officer Magnus René said in an interview this summer. “I think that is amazing.”). SLM has customers in the aerospace, energy, health-care and automotive industries.

GE, as one of the world’s leading makers of jet engines, energy turbines and medical equipment, should have plenty of uses for 3-D-printed metal parts -- it just put its first 3-D-printed fuel nozzles in jet engines this July -- and figures other manufacturers will, too. This could mean major changes in how lots of things are made, and in the roster of companies and regions that dominate certain kinds of manufacturing.

It’s an entirely different phenomenon, though, from the decentralized "maker movement" that is so often identified with 3-D printing. I’m all for makers, and I think the rise of places like TechShop, where regular folks like you and me can get access to not just a 3-D printer but a plasma cutter and a sheet-metal roller, is great. But making better jet-engine parts and hip implants -- which I don’t think is going to be done at a TechShop anytime soon -- is arguably more important.

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