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.