Nor can 3D printers crank out zillions of identical parts at low cost, as mass-production lines can. Nevertheless, 3D printers have their virtues, which is why they are starting to be used by some of the world’s biggest manufacturers, such as Airbus, Boeing, GE, Ford and Siemens.
The market for 3D printers and services is small, but growing fast. Last year it was worth $2.2bn worldwide, up 29 percent from 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, a consultancy. As producers become more familiar with the technology, they are moving from prototypes to final products. Last year Wohlers reckons more than 25 percent of the 3D-printing market involved making production-ready items.
Some of those parts are taking shape in some printers. In many cases they are low-volume items, such as components used to build specialist pharmaceutical or paper-making equipment. Other components, such as 3D-printed tools and jigs, will actually enhance mass-production: BMW’s assembly-line workers design and print custom tools to make it easier to hold and position parts. 3D-printed plastic moulds and dies are also being printed to help set up and trial new production lines. Some of these printed parts are even used as temporary stand-ins for broken steel tools, which can take weeks to replace.
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Keywords: 3D printers in manufacturing, 3D printing quality, 3D printing durability, supply chain management, value chain