3D Printing and Manufacturing: How rapid prototyping might change the world.

3D printing, or rapid prototyping, moves out of scifi and into reality.

“Computer, give me a ham sandwich.”

We may not be too far away from that as the technology of rapid prototyping is moving into the food industry.  Today, 3D printing is being used to create custom parts that can have remarkable strength and functionality.  The fully-assembled part can actually be made with tolerances around 2-thousandths of an inch and with moving parts already assembled.

In the food industry, it is simply a matter of time until multiple combinations of ingredients and formulas are created to produce food on-demand.  However, the complexity of organic systems is still out of reach for the industry today and the complex reactions that occur during cooking would be difficult to model in a prototyping machine.

But what are some examples of ways we can leverage this technology today.

  1. Visualizing floor layouts.  Today 3D modeling is already accomplished on computer screens, enabling an individual to conduct a virtual tour of a facility before it is even constructed.  But what if you could create a scale model of the plant, with equipment already installed and scaled fork trucks, pallets, and people to visualize the workings of the plant within hours?  Literally, it is possible to build a model overnight, while you sleep.  This could alter how we go about creating a visual factory and could assist Industrial Engineers with plant layout and Operations people with new equipment installations and safety evaluations before a plant is even under construction.  It could save thousands of dollars in post-construction tweaking of a plant.
  2. Changepart construction and design.  Before new packaging can hit the market, a major time constraint is the design and construction of changeparts for the packaging equipment.  Rapid prototyping would allow the package to be made in a day, a physical sample sent to the equipment manufacturer, changeparts to be designed almost immediately, and then those changeparts printed the next day to try a dry fit to the package and the equipment.  This could shave weeks, if not months, from a new package timeline to market.
  3. Reducing equipment downtime.  Metal prototyping is a possibility with this technology as well.  A new part can be made overnight or even right in the shop.  Depending on the part complexity and where it must be shipped from, it might be a faster, cheaper alternative to have the part printed when it is needed if it can be done locally.
  4. Reducing parts inventory.  Some parts have to be purchased in quantities that can be a bit ridiculous at times.  If parts aren’t needed very often, they can be printed on-demand, reducing on-hand inventory and freeing up space in your parts room.

I’m sure I missed many of the ways this technology can help the manufacturing environment.  There are engineering and new product testing that are a given for this type of technology.  The 3D printing world is already starting to invade the food industry by printing out chocolate and sugar candy.

Now, how about that sandwich?

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