Industry trends: 3D printing

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By Chris Passanante | Mar 02, 2016
Manufacturing with a 3D printer

After conducting and analyzing the results of GM Nameplate’s latest biannual customer survey, we identified growing trends in the manufacturing industry. One of these trends is the emergence and role of 3D printing within the manufacturing industry. Because a portion of our customers noted that 3D printing is impacting the way they do business, we have decided to dive deeper into the technology.

On a basic level, 3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object and has been around for decades. While the technology isn’t new, the way it’s being utilized as a business tool is transforming. Within GM Nameplate’s plastic division, Elite Plastics, a 3D printer is used as a development tool because of the quick turnaround time, which can be as short as 48 hours.

Elite Plastics’ 3D printer is typically used for customer driven prototypes or internally requested parts rather than for mass production. This is because the 3D printer cannot match the repeatability or quality that a proven injection molding process can achieve. While the cycle time of a 3D printer is quite short, the overall time it would take to produce mass quantities of parts on the 3D printer is much longer than that of injection molding equipment. The 3D printer is also limited in material selection. Because of these limitations, the 3D printer serves as a strong tool for project planning rather than as a production tool.

The 3D printer operates by melting plastic and forming an object out of the material. Elite Plastics possesses software that is compatible to our 3D printer and is able to convert files to a specific format that is readable by the printer. This software writes its own Geometric Dimensioning & Tolerance (GD&T) code to direct the printer. This code tells the printer how, where, and when to move the extruder head. The plastic is heated up enough to cause the plastic to melt, but not so hot that the material degrades or burns, and is pushed through the extruder nozzle to form the piece. The nozzle is capable of moving in very fine increments to create the geometry of the part. The part size is limited by the size of the 3D printer; however, if the part is too large for the work space the design can be scaled down to give customers a general idea of the piece in real form.