You can print a working flute?! A radical impact to manufacturing and supply chains?

Published May 17th, 2012 by Trevor Miles @milesahead 0 Comments

working fluteI guess many of you are familiar with the new laser printing capabilities that allow one to print, for example, a working flute?  The silver one in the photo is a traditional flute made out of silver or some other metal.  The white one was printed using a laser machine and composite materials.  It took 15 hours and wasn’t perfect, but my guess is that it takes more than 15 hours to make the metal flute if we add the time to make the mold, melt the metal, pour the molten metal into a form, machine the molded parts, and then assemble the flute.  And I’m guessing the technology is going to improve over time and, in the process, become cheaper and faster.

Click on the image to watch the video.  There are a whole bunch more of these printers being used to print a bicycle.  Or a wrench.  Or a model airplane that can fly.  Yes, one that can fly.

I don’t know about you, but I get a little queasy watching these videos.  It is very difficult for me to comprehend such a radical shift in the manner in which products are manufactured.  I suffer from vertigo and it feels like I am looking into “the abyss” with this new technology.  At first I thought this stuff was just for models, something like the Matchbox cars.  But look at this complex chain mail shape that was printed. And note that the model airplane, with what looks to be a 1.3m/4’ wingspan, or thereabouts, required no screws to hold it together. Another one that proves to me that this mode of ‘manufacturing’ has gone beyond concept to reality is the working wrench.  OK, I’m not sure how much torque the wrench can absorb, but I’m sure over time they will get harder materials.

This is radical technology that is going to change a huge part of the supply chain and manufacturing process.  Think about all the skills and jobs that will change as a result of being able to print all sorts of end items.  This would likely result in a drop in some commodity prices and a rise in others, such as, unfortunately, in the oil price. At the same time it is likely that printing machines could be placed much closer to the point of consumption making long supply chain redundant, reducing the need for oil. The opportunities for mass customization are huge, including not only color but shape too.

A lot has to happen before we get to this point, not the least of which are improvements in quality, reduction in cost, and increase in throughput.  And I am not sure that we will see ships manufactured in this manner.  But maybe we will.  After all the Boeing Dreamliner is the first fully carbon fiber air frame, so why not some other composite material that can be printed?  And I am not sure how we will ever get to using this technology to manufacture electronics or electrical and combustion motors.  But perhaps this just shows my lack of vision and knowledge of materials.  But there is a huge potential in other product areas that are more mechanical in nature where printed manufacturing is going to be hugely disruptive, assuming the issues of cost, quality, and throughput can be addresses.

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