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Exploring the Possible: You don’t know everything about 3D printing… yet.

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“We just want to see what is possible,” he said.

I was speaking with a senior designer at a sporting goods manufacturer. His group was focused on all things innovation, the future of his industry, and was exploring the use of full-color PolyJet 3D printing.

The words “what is possible” were long overdue in this conversation, and from my experience always come up in chats like this. Exploring what’s possible is the number one thing most companies need to do to start using 3D printing effectively. A recent Blueprint survey revealed that for 85% of businesses struggling to adopt additive, internal knowledge is their limiting factor.

Explore the open waters

Exploring the possible is not an engineering problem. Trust me, I’d know. As an engineer by education, experience, and even temperament, I have an affinity for seeking out the constraints, clarifying the goal, and crafting a solution out of the tools available. If our goal is to get out to sea, and the constraints are the riverbanks, I will navigate the boat around the rocks to the open waters.

But what if instead of traveling a river, we’re in open water in the middle of a fog? Navigating uncharted waters doesn’t demand the skills of an engineer, but of an explorer. Seeing open water when it’s there can be uncomfortable because it means exploration… and sometimes it means just picking a heading and moving forward.

“If we could 3D print this however you wanted, what are your priorities in its design?” I probed.

He paused. “We want to show ‘organic’. Something showy and ‘exposed’. And it’s got to be unmistakably ours.”

And with this, I had my heading. “For ‘organic’, why don’t we make this area a little flexible? For ‘exposed’… let’s make this whole inner part transparent, and to make sure it embodies your brand let’s make the rest of it your corporate color.”

He replied, “I had no idea that was even possible.”

You don’t know it all… yet

Although 3D printing is by no means a brand-new technology, it gets both more capable and complex daily. For example, 3D printed composites (such as carbon fiber, glass, and fiberglass) are now all over the market in many forms like filled extrusion, continuous fiber, and (most recently) micro-automated fiber placement. All are processes that didn’t exist 5 years ago. And any one of them might be the right fit for a new application.

Here are three ways to start exploring the possible:

  1. Take time to understand the technology. The technical drives the possible, so understanding the way that powder moves inside of a build and how a part orientation affects support material is critical to using additive well. Find projects that require you to “think additively” and spend the time researching and experimenting to understand how the printer works.
  2. Push the limits of design. Every experienced additive user has fond memories of seeing a part catastrophically fail to build. Learning is part of the experience. Even before you start investing in industrial additive manufacturing equipment, work closely with a competent service bureau to make additive part of your next product design effort.
  3. Don’t go it alone. Companies are making big impact today with 3D printing… and they’re talking about it! Find a vendor or client who is using 3D printing successfully and talk through their successes and failures. Consider attending the next Additive Manufacturing Users Group which is an exceptionally collaborative conference where the cutting edge of AM technology is discussed.

Define tomorrow’s “possible”

Understanding what’s possible is the beginning of transformative additive value… but it’s just the beginning. In a Blueprint webinar, “Designing for (the Madness of) Additive Manufacturing,” I introduce the “Possibility, Feasibility, Optimality” framework of capturing additive value through design. We discuss how real companies are using this framework to create the products of the future.

At the end of the day, what is “possible” with additive manufacturing is only what has been done so far. With a willingness to explore, you may just redefine the possible for us all.

David Busacker is an Engineering Consultant with Blueprint. With a background in service bureaus and applications engineering, David loves designing great parts supported by great processes for customers. He has a passion for design for additive manufacturing, making designs that squeeze every ounce of value out of additive manufacturing.

Blueprint is the world’s leading 3D printing consultancy. We’re engineers, innovators, analysts, and strategists with 15 years of experience helping clients across virtually every industry, at startups and Fortune 500 companies alike. We are laser-focused on helping our clients make sense of 3D printing, from high-level strategy and innovation, to deeply technical design optimization.

If you want to discuss this article or your additive manufacturing strategy, the team at Blueprint is here to help. Let’s say hello.

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