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Published August 26, 2016
A weekly look at Wyoming business questions from the Wyoming Small Business Development Center (WSBDC), part of WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz, a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming.
By Mike Lambert, WSBDC Network Market Research Center manager
“I have been hearing about 3-D printing for a while now. Is this just for hobbyists, or is it a real thing?” Joe, Gillette
Like many technologies, 3-D printing has had its teething pains. However, it appears poised to be a real game changer for many areas of manufacturing.
With the list of printable materials increasing seemingly daily, now, nearly anything can be printed using the technology.
GE, one of the world’s largest manufacturers, is betting pretty heavily on 3-D printing (also known as additive technology). According to Forbes, GE has invested $3.5 billion in purchasing 3-D printing machines that can produce metal parts and to train the staff to run them. GE isn’t doing this because the technology is “cool”; it’s because it is where the industry is heading.
Last year, GE opened a “multi-modal” manufacturing facility in Chakan, India. This $200 million plant is unique because, unlike a traditional factory, it doesn’t make just one type of product. In Chakan, GE manufactures steam turbines, water treatment units and jet engine parts in the same factory.
Rather than multiple factories for each business line, the flexibility inherent in 3-D printing allows GE to manufacture a wide variety of products using the same machinery. This results in a large amount of flexibility and can save an enormous amount of money.
One of the success stories for GE’s efforts is a jet engine fuel nozzle. This doesn’t sound terribly impressive until you understand that, before 3-D printing, the nozzle had 20 different pieces, procured from different vendors, which were then brazed and welded together. This was time consuming and an expensive process.
The 3-D printed part is made as a single part, which is 25 percent lighter in weight and five times more durable than the old part. And, rather than needing to maintain tooling, jibs and special assembly areas, GE can print the parts it needs. With a change of computer programming, GE can create something completely different on the same machine tomorrow.
The U.S. military also is embracing 3-D printing for everything from personal weaponry to replacement parts. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Air Force Material Command commander, sees additive manufacturing (3-D printing) as a massive game changer.
With 3-D printers moving from plastics and into high-quality metals, and even biological parts like replacement ears, bones and organs, the technology is poised to change multiple industries in the same way that Henry Ford’s assembly line improved the manufacturing process in the early 1900s.
Those in the manufacturing business who don’t keep an eye on the developments in this field may find themselves becoming the next buggy whip makers.
A blog version of this article and an opportunity to post comments are available at www.wyen.biz/blog1/.
The WSBDC is a partnership of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming. To ask a question, call 1-800-348-5194, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write 1000 E. University Ave., Dept. 3922, Laramie, WY, 82071-3922.