Some exotic uses of 3D printers have been in the news lately, from printing goodies with chocolate to turning out guns. Intriguing as those examples are, the reality is that 3D printing has been in use in the real world for a while, though its uses may not be so glamorous or controversial.

When Wesko Locks Ltd. wanted to provide a client with a prototype of a new lock design, the Mississauga, Ont., lock company used to have to prepare tooling first. That took about six weeks, according to Tony Sabelli, Wesko’s head of engineering, and if the prototype wasn’t exactly what the client wanted, the tooling would have to be modified before production began.

Early in 2011 Wesko – which Sabelli says makes more than 500 different kinds of locks, mainly for office furniture manufacturers – installed a Stratasys 3D printer. With this printer, Wesko can produce a lock prototype in a few hours.

Cheaper prototyping

That means clients can see designs much faster and Wesko can get into production faster. And prototyping on a 3D printer is cheaper too – Sabelli says the company has saved easily $50,000 since buying the machine.

Since the 3D printer makes it much quicker and cheaper to produce prototypes, says Sabelli, “now that it’s there we try out everything now.” Wesko also finds other uses for the machine, like creating small jigs to hold parts that need extra machining. “It’s addictive,” Sabelli says. “Once you have it, you try to use it as much as you can.”

Prototyping is “by far and away the largest market for 3D printers,” accounting for 80 to 90 per cent of sales, says Doug Angus-Lee, 3D printer product manager at Javelin Technologies Inc., an Oakville, Ont., reseller of 3D printers and design software. Other uses include medical applications – producing custom orthotic  devices, for instance. Making custom jigs for manufacturing is another use.

Invisalign clear braces for straightening teeth are made with a 3D printing process, says Evan Hardie, research manager for printer and hardcopy peripherals at International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto. “They’re doing millions of units, all custom.”

Small-volume production – items like airplane engine parts and air dams for Formula One racing cars – account for a growing share of 3D printer uses, Hardie says. While lower-cost 3D printers for consumers have been drawing media attention, he adds, that market segment remains small.

Robot parts

Crosswing Inc., a Toronto robotics company, has used a Stratasys printer for about five years to produce parts for home and medical robots and for prototyping. Crosswing’s robots are low-volume products, says Dale Wick, the company’s chief technology officer, so some parts are more economically produced with a 3D printer than by other methods – like the I-beam that supports the wheels and motor of one model, of which Crosswing makes about one a month.

In the past, Wick says, Crosswing would have made some prototype parts by creating a mold, pouring resin and then waiting three weeks for the resin to cure. Other parts would have had to be machined, a labour-intensive process. Instead of three weeks of elapsed time and 16 to 20 hours of labour to make one prototype, Wick says, “I can do two iterations a day and we spend a little bit of time thinking about it in between.”

The technology does have some weaknesses. The resolution of 3D printers isn’t always good enough to make small parts perfectly, Sabelli says, and prototypes may need a bit of cleaning up – such as filing by hand – to work properly. On the flip side, Wick says, 3D printing can do some things injection molding can’t, which means that if you prototype with a 3D printer “you do really need to re-engineer your parts when you’re going to mass production.”

And because of limitations on things like how much part of a design can overhang without breaking, Hardie says, “if you’re a designer you have to really know what you’re doing.”

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