Finding the E of 3D!

— Pratima H

There are two things that always fascinate me about IKEA. Irrespective of how good or bad the product is, the brand has always caught the fancy of would-be customers by playing two lateral moves.

The first one is the sheer and inexplicable delight that it showers on adults (who are still carrying a five-year old somewhere inside) by letting them relive the Lego era of sorts. Self-assembly feature would have struck as ridiculous to IKEA’s peers and rival certainly when the idea first popped. May be also outrageously contrary to the prevalent proposition of offering convenience to customers. But IKEA seems to have been cruising well on the subliminal truth about a customer – It’s not what we ask and answer, it’s what we secretly need and want.sustainability 3d printing 1

The feeling of control and ownership (no matter how misplaced or ephemeral) brings a smile to almost every face, whether it’s a toddler dressing up her Barbie or a grown-up truck driver or banker fixing together a ‘can-open-will-do’ make-shift cupboard.

The strong magnetism of a ‘personal factory’ – rightly coined, or pitched well, by Ping Fu of Geomagic  (early pioneers of 3D Printing in Silicon Valley) fame – cannot be dismissed easily.

Who doesn’t love the notion of making one’s own dream pair of Cinderella shoes or a good set of Bumblebee wheels for one’s garage?

3D Printing is here, not just because technology has finally traversed this far, but also because the user has finally leapt off the cliff too.

Jumping off Assembly Lines

Although the technology has existed since the 1980s, 3D Printing has really gone mainstream in the last five years, Alex Chausovsky, Senior Principal Analyst, Industrial Automation at Research major IHS, reckons. The technology has already started drilling its roots in a couple of industries. Take Consumer Products: Clothing, Shoes, Jewelry, Toys, Home Décor, Electronics or Medical Products: Joint Replacements, Prosthetics, Crowns / Invisalign Braces  or even Industrial Products: Tools, Molds, Fuel Injection Nozzles, Gas Turbine Parts, Pumps; and you will see its degree of penetration well.

The veteran analyst lists down many advantages of this new phenomenon.

Alex Chausovsky Sr Principal Analyst IHS Technology

Alex Chausovsky Sr Principal Analyst IHS Technology

“It has increased design innovation by creating new structures and shapes; engineers are able to take an idea, create a CAD model, and have a part in their hands by the next day. They are then able to see exactly how it fits into the piece of equipment they are building. It also improves the design process by allowing for new combinations of materials.”

Chausovsky also observes at how it is speeding up ‘time to market’ by making the idea to prototype cycle much shorter. “Necessary adjustments to prototypes are made quickly and new prototypes are printed within hours or days, which really speeds up the entire design process.”

Now the cost and wastage part that is of top interest from an environmental perspective.

Yes, 3D Printing reduces development costs and waste by using less materials, and increases personalization of products for customers, without additional cost increases, Chausovsky informs.

Srinivas Shastry, Technical Director, Altem, a notable player in this space, feels that the first benefit of 3D printing technology is the amount of time and money it saves in the design prototyping stage, as it uses lesser number of steps from the design to manufacturing stage.

Mr Srinivas Shastry, Technical Director, Altem Technologies (2)

Srinivas Shastry, Technical Director, Altem Technologies

“In a typical manufacturing process, a design is first created, then molds are designed (a process that can take a week to a month) to suit the mold, then the design is manufactured and tested for errors. The entire process is repeated till the design is perfectly manufactured.”

Products are designed using complex computer software platforms and are then printed layer by layer, allowing for features that were not possible with traditional machine or human manufacturing techniques.

This is a good time to get into a slightly-boring but relevant walk around the techniques per se.

The Basics

Manufacturing, in broad buckets, can be sliced into some approaches – additive, subtractive and casting or forging.

3D Printing, also called Additive Manufacturing, “adds” materials to create products, rather than “subtracting” them as is typical in traditional manufacturing processes. This presents significant potential cost savings to manufacturers that invest in the technology.

And that as Chausovsky dissects, is a major positive going in favour of 3D Printing.  This is where it is strongly capable of eliminating a lot of waste, specially when compared to erstwhile manufacturing ways. “Think of as much as 40-60% less material involved here, when it comes to producing a given part, vis a vis a traditional manufacturing process. In some instances, this number can go as high as 90 per cent. For other cases, it may be not be as dramatic, but the difference is still there, and notably so.”

He quips here about a line from Michael Angelo on how his form of art simply meant cutting away everything that was not a horse and that’s how to go about sculpting or creating something. Now, all the non-horse part is essentially a waste for the maker and that means large potential savings to manufacturers also. The ‘throwing away’ gets reduced here.

sustainability 3d printing 2Ido Eylon, General Manager, Southern Asia & Pacific, Stratasys, a well-known name in this segment, explains that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), allows manufacturers to produce end-use parts on demand. While traditional fabrication methods, such as subtractive manufacturing, removes excessive materials which may lead to possible material disposal, 3D printers build parts by extruding necessary amount of materials, helping manufacturers minimize material consumption, subsequently reducing production cost and time.  “The biggest difference between additive manufacturing and subtractive manufacturing methods is the complexity of the parts they are able to create in a limited timeframe. For parts with complex geometries or intricate designs, additive manufacturing methods can produce more superior results than subtractive methods can.”

In addition, 3D printing helps manufacturers to reduce inventory level and storage space through Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM). DDM application allows engineers or operators to convert 3D CAD data of the needed parts to compatible files and send directly to 3D printers for mass production. It is especially applicable for high-mix low-volume (HMLV) manufacturing as factory owners can streamline production process by skipping the initial tooling and casting procedures without compromising quality. Durable and accurate parts can also be printed repeatedly in any desirable quantity with the press of few buttons, giving factory owners the flexibility to work on others tasks while waiting for parts to be 3D printed, Eylon explains.

Shastry contends that with 3D printing, the level of accuracy is much higher, no molds need to be created and design changes can be implemented with minimal effort and no external mold creation etc. It prevents bulk manufacturing for testing and evaluation sample and produces a prototype sample, which saves time, money, easy to dispose and since the prototype sample is of resin, it can be recycled as well.

Chausovsky outlines that presently, these are early days for 3D printing in manufacturing space, but it means quite a lot when you also think of wastage in terms of the kinds of materials involved, like steel, copper, aluminum and then Titanium or high-end materials. “This makes a lot of difference to a vertical like Aerospace which finds light-weight materials like Titanium more befitting. 3D printing, to add, also brings down the lead time when compared to casting and forging.”

So it’s a good for the environment? Wait, don’t rush there!

Most of the 3D printing that we are witnessing today is essentially around plastics, especially techniques like Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).

Chausovsky reminds that machines are not always enclosed so there is also the issue of toxic fumes and exhausts as a by-product. “It is not so much of a threat today but in future, the scale and adoption may transform the weight of the problem a lot.”sustainability 3d printing 3

The sounds were started being made as early as 2013. An Illinois Institute of Technology study had pointed that the emissions from desktop 3D printers were as close to burning a cigarette as heating the plastic and printing small figures, the machines using PLA filament can emit some 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute. The ABS or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene which has been notoriously in spotlight so much already is said to emit as much as 200 billion particles per minute. These particles can settle in the lungs or the bloodstream and pose health risk, especially when it comes to people (workers or users) with breathing problems. ABS is a non-bio-degradable plastic and it is speculated that when heated between 210-250ºC for extrusion in a 3D printer, it exudes fumes which can range from unpleasant to harmful to even an inhalation hazard for any user.

As to epoxy resins for rapid prototyping using stereo lithographic (SLA) 3D printing, Researchers from Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania studied about the problem around photopolymers being made via a chemical reaction that uses a toxic heavy metal called antimony, and printed items based on the material can contain up to 100 times the levels of the heavy metal found in other polymers such as polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) which is often found in food packaging. They found that a commercially available photopolymers contained up to 10 percent by weight antimony compounds and they raised concerns that the rapid projected growth in 3D printing – and as a result accentuated use and disposal of materials containing antimony – could create a hazard.

Are we thinking carcinogenic already here?

The view from the other side appears to be less-intimidated there. Eylon highlights here, “As the leading 3D printing solutions provider, Stratasys is committed to offering strong and durable materials for our customers. We take pride in ensuring that our products are environmental friendly and we regulate this closely through 3rd party studies and assessments. Our 3D printing materials have gone through safety tests, and specific materials such as bio-compatible and high-performance engineering plastics are thoroughly evaluated and supported by ISO certificates prior to introduction to the market.”

Shastry echoes that when he underlines that global awareness of environmental risk and the pressing needs to improve efficiency of manufacturing systems is growing and forcing to introduce new concepts to achieve the same. “Green manufacturing is reflected to employ various green strategies and technique to produce with eco-efficient. Green manufacturing aspects on the machine level were studied in various machining process. The objective is to evaluate the factors involved in green process of Rapid Prototyping.3D printing could lead to greener product manufacturing and consumption. For one, it wastes much less material than injection molding, milling and other traditional manufacturing process because instead of subtracting material away from a block, it adds material on top of material, only using what is needed to grow the geometry of the part. 3D printing also greatly simplifies the supply chain because of the ability to manufacture different designs without building a complete production line for each and every product. It opens up the doors for localized production facilities close to consumer concentrations reducing the distance parts must be shipped.”

Plus, there is the big question of ‘when’ and ‘how much’ as always.

Chausovsky is cautious. “Currently, the biggest drawbacks for 3D Printing are size and speed limitations, which prevent the technology from replacing many assembly line manufacturing processes.”

sustainability 3d printing 4“Although 3D printing technology is a faster and cost-effective method for low-volume production, we believe that it is not likely to replace traditional fabrication methods. Instead, 3D printing works hand in hand with traditional fabrication methods within the industrial environment, helping manufacturers and factory owners maximize investment through best-suited solutions according to different needs and request from clients, such as using traditional methods for mass production, while adopting 3D printing technology in customized low-volume orders.” Eylon observes too.


The technology may be ripe with revolution but it will not be entirely a welcome renaissance if it does not wake up to some adoption velocity and more importantly, to some environmental side-effects, specially, the not-so-happy ones. The point is in being open, lateral and ambitious enough to look past the status-quo or how the market operates currently.

Oh yes, the other good thing about IKEA is that some of its stores don’t really mind if you walk around to shop and end up napping on one of its beds.

Customers always like weird lollipops, we told you.


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