3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter

Bruce Rayner, Contributing Editor, Enterprise Efficiency OEM | 3/21/2012 | 10 comments

Bruce Rayner
By now, if you work for an OEM, you’ve probably heard about 3D printing and its potential to revolutionize manufacturing and supply chain management. I blogged about it a few months ago, after my wife returned home from the dentist with a 3D printed crown. I was fascinated.

I’ve been keeping an eye on developments, and there seem to be examples of 3D printing in action everywhere I look. All these new use cases will challenge CIOs in the near future to come up with the resources to support an explosion in growth.

Additive manufacturing (as 3D printing is more traditionally called) works by printing a material -- plastic, titanium, aluminum, or whatever -- one layer at a time. Size is not a constraint, because the printers can scale to make anything from interconnects for stacked semiconductors to jet engine turbine fans to multistory sculptures. Check out the wide variety of case studies from 3D printing equipment companies such as 3D Systems and Optomec.

One of 3D Systems’ longtime customers is In’Tech Industries, a family-owned company in Ramsey, Minn., that has been a pioneer in additive manufacturing. It has been printing hearing aid shells for more than a decade.

“Back in 2001, we figured out how to take digital ear impressions and directly print the hearing aid shells. It’s really where additive manufacturing got its start,” said Randy Stevens, In’Tech’s operations manager.

This is a perfect example of mass customization. Each hearing aid needs to be customized to fit the wearer’s ear. Not only does additive manufacturing produce a more accurate fit than conventional hand-pouring methods, but it also saves time, money, and materials. In the old days, it was not uncommon for large hearing aid manufacturers to operate “shell labs” with teams of 20 or more employees casting shells manually, Stevens said. Those workers have been replaced or retrained, and now the process is totally automated, relying on digital models and a fleet of 3D printers that run almost constantly.

Given the compelling business case, it’s not surprising that, according to Stevens, the vast majority of hearing aid shells are being manufactured today with 3D printers.

The same phenomenon is occurring in other markets where customization is critical, such as prosthetics and dentistry. In’Tech got involved in the dental market in 2004 with the development of interaural scanning that digitally captures precise teeth geometry. Today it ships dental models and appliances, custom hearing components, and other medical products to customers around the world daily.

But all this customized printing presents some serious challenges. Companies like In’Tech face serious data management issues. As manufacturing volume increases and products become more complex and customized, the data files get larger. A dental file is orders of magnitude larger than the file for a hearing aid ear shell and can take up to several megabytes.

In’Tech’s printers are producing hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of rapid manufactured components a day. That means processing many gigabytes of data. Add to the mix new industrial applications, and the data requirements will rise by another order of magnitude or two in the near future.

Stevens says his company’s IT infrastructure is managing the data flow just fine. But there will come a day when In’Tech and companies like it will need to upgrade their IT capabilities.

Judging by the rapid growth of 3D printing, that day will be here pretty soon.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Zaius   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/22/2012 8:24:14 AM
Re: What do you store?
This is an intriguing conversation. I knew about 3-D printing, but I had only heard about the ones that use paper. One of my teacher friends get them to use for creating models. I suppose architects would use them for the same reason. Imagine all of the various ways these could be used and it takes customize station to the stratosphere. However, I agree with the majority that storage should not be an issue. After all, how long does it take to take a new image? There will probably be imaging stations popping up in Kinko's or in hospital waiting rooms where people can get measured for whatever they need. She had loved to have a pair gloves that actually fit. I also have a friend who would love to have a pair of shoes that actually fit. I shall dream about this guys. thanks.
David Wagner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 7:55:53 PM
Re: What do you store?
Sorry, I don't think I answered that question very well. What I'm asking is what is the computing difference between big time front line manufacturing, and 3-D printing manufacturing. So, instead of hand molding, we;re talking about someone who makes a million doohickies. If I make a million doohickies with 3-D printing, do I need more IT resources than if I made a million doohickies with traditional line manufacturing?
Bruce Rayner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 6:49:56 PM
Re: What do you store?
@David - the differences between the hand molding and digital images is like analog versus digital. Where analog is the dentist filling your mouth with putty and letting it set and then creating a mold of your tooth. There are no data files for the physical mold. But the advantage is you can store it on a shelf for a long time (if you want to). It requires a warehouse instead of a storage farm, or Cloud.


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David Wagner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 5:30:59 PM
Re: What do you store?
OK, so discarding the files does at least buy CIOs some time with this. You have to process the model but at least you don't have to store if for 20 years. What is the OEM equivalent if you aren't using 3-D printing?

Obviously you have to store prototype and modeling data to make it work. You mentioned the hand modeling for hearing aids, but there must be a more industrial equivalent.

Are the computing pressures all that different in a non-hand made shop wiht traditional manufacturing versus 3-D printing?
Bruce Rayner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 5:19:08 PM
Re: What do you store?
@david - I'd imagine that if you're looking for a good fit for a hearing aid, you'd want to take a new digital scan every time you needed a replacement. People change as they age. Perhaps there's a regulatory requirement for data storage or maybe an insurance requirement. Other than that, I'd suspect that once the body part has been scanned and the product 'printed' you'd want to discard the file.
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Bruce Rayner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 5:16:07 PM
Re: 3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter
@singlemud. I'm sure you're right cloud computing could well be the answer for the data overload in the processing of the data - and as a repository for the millions of product files that no doubt will need to be stored. Think the entire catalog for an MRO distributor like Granger. The mind boggles.
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Bruce Rayner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 5:13:29 PM
Re: What do you store? Printable Shoes
@Curtis. Interesting example you give for a custom product: shoes. A partner of 3D Solutions evidently worked with UK Olympic sprinters to develop printable spike shoes (see link below) no doubt cowboy boots will be next.



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CurtisFranklin   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 5:01:12 PM
Re: What do you store?
OK, so I have enough spare parts in my body that I'm excited about this, but think about other, more common uses: What could this, for example, do to the custom shoe and boot business? No more hand-carved lasts, rather a precise model of your feet around which the cobbler would build a shoe. I'd love a couple of pairs of good, custom-fit western boots if they didn't cost $3,000 a pair...

Seriously, this is one of the things I suspect I'll end up owning in the next couple of years -- the possibilities for art and for maker-style projects are just too intriguing. If nothing else, I can imagine GoPro camera mounts for lots and lots of different surfaces...
singlemud   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 4:47:59 PM
Re: 3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter
This is a very interesting article. 3D printing is indeed for quick production of customized product, eliminating the tranditional lengthy production proecss from design, CNC machining,modeling.

As for the storage need, cloud based storage will be the rescue for their datacenter.
David Wagner   3D Printing's Impact on the Datacenter   3/21/2012 4:20:35 PM
What do you store?
Interesting, Bruce. Never thought about how making small, custimizable stuff is the best use case for 3-D printing.

So, here is my question-- obviously, with hearing aids, you have to keep a file because people will have ears for a long time and need replacements. On the other hand, a crown should last a really long time and your mouth might change by the time you need to replace it.

In other words, can some companies get away with print and delete? Or is there some unknown big data advantage to keeping all of these files I'm not thinking about?

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