Yesterday I spoke at the International Conference on Innovations in Plastic Industry in Mumbai. The 3D printing session was introduced by the host stating that in 3 to 4 years 3D printing could be used to produce end-use production parts. I started my speech by asking for a show of hands to check how many in the audience agreed with the prediction of the host. Many hands in the room were raised.
I reached into my coat pocket and gave one of the attendees in the front row, who had raised his hand, a part printed on our Figure 4 3D printer using the Pro-BLK 10 production-grade material. I asked him to tell me whether the part was injection molded or 3D printed.
He studied the part and declared, “This part is injection molded”. The person sitting next to him studied the part as well and agreed with him. I replied saying that the part was 3D printed, much to the surprise of both attendees.
I then asked the attendee to show me how the part was oriented in the 3D printer. 3D printed parts are built in layers that can be seen and felt by touch, giving the parts a rough surface finish. Injection molded parts, on the other hand, have a smooth surface finish. The rough surface of 3D printed parts has been one of the reasons 3D printers have historically been used for prototyping and not production of end-use parts. The build lines on 3D printed parts give an indication of how the part was oriented in the printer.
This time the attendee took a closer look at the part and turned it in all possible directions. But he couldn’t see or feel the build lines. I asked him to pass the part around the room and told the audience that whoever showed me the correct orientation could keep the part. I then proceeded to start my presentation which explained how end-use production parts have been 3D printed by our Figure 4 customers for some years now. As an example, I showed how our Figure 4 printer was printing some of its own internal parts. These parts would stay in the printer for their entire lifetime, just like injection molded parts. There was no need for us to spend time and money on expensive injection molding tooling just to produce a few hundred parts. We directed printed them in the Figure 4.
I randomly interrupted my presentation a few times to ask the attendee currently holding the part to show me how the part was oriented. I didn’t get the right answer and asked the person to continue passing the part around the room. At the end of my presentation, the part was deposited back into my coat pocket.
Everyone in the room touched and felt the Figure 4 3D printed part and came to realise that the world as they knew it had already changed. This was a room full of people, some with decades of experience in injection molding. They couldn’t see and feel the build lines even when they were told that the part was 3D printed. For me, this was the ultimate test of the Figure 4 direct digital production solution that the amazing team at 3D Systems has been building for years now.
Take a bow, my 3D Systems teammates. If a room full of people specialising in injection molding could not figure out how a Figure 4 3D printed part was oriented in the printer, then I think we have achieved what we had set out to do. This is innovation at its finest.