The expectations were high, as with almost every new, promising technology. 3D printing will bring manufacturing back from low-wage countries, make large factories superfluous and much more. These large and, of course, exaggerated expectations have not yet been met. The technology therefore disappeared a bit from the public eye. But now, in the corona pandemic, it can show its strengths. This time it’s not just expectations and promises, this time the industry delivers.

“A few weeks ago, we would never have thought that we would print sticks for test kits,” says Stefan Holländer, head of European business at Formlabs, an American manufacturer of 3D printers. But that’s exactly what many Formlabs customers are doing now, for example dental laboratories. Wherever the plastic parts for bridges are manufactured, the coveted sticks are now being made, and in Spain it has been possible to solve delivery bottlenecks.

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3-D printing is still not suitable for mass production

Holländer not only sees this as a practical solution for the current situation, but also a model for the future: 3D printing as a buffer for delivery problems. Additive manufacturing, as the technical term for 3-D printing is still not suitable for mass production, but if, for example, parts delivery is delayed, additive manufacturing can step in very quickly and prevent expensive production downtimes, says Holländer.

The advantage of 3-D printing: It is ideal for reacting flexibly and quickly. In addition to the hardware – i.e. the printing presses – all that is needed is software and the right material. With the latter, the choice is growing. Formlabs relies on synthetic resins, almost 30 different ones are available, from permanently elastic to very hard or heat-resistant. Other manufacturers also offer the production of metal components, so the methods used are different. Some bake powder material with laser beams, the others spray liquids onto layers of powder and then harden with UV light, while others apply plastics in layers.

The second advantage of the technology: It works decentrally without any problems. If you already have a printer, all you need is a corresponding digital template file and you can start right away. The leading manufacturers quickly recognized this during the crisis and offered to help themselves or were asked by the governments of their countries.

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It’s not always about high-tech, sometimes simple things also help: Not only did the sticks for the smears come about, but also, for example, clips for protective masks. These plastic parts are worn on the back of the head and help to avoid the uncomfortable tension caused by rubber bands on the ears. Or there are plastic holders adapted to individual faces that press fabric masks better against the mouth and nose. The data for the face come from a smartphone app.

But it can also be more demanding: The Czech Institute for Computer Science, Robotics and Cybernetics developed print templates for a mask in which a filter can also be inserted with a thread. Respiratory protection also complies with the standard required in hospitals. And it can be disinfected with steam or alcohol and reused. Not all printers are suitable for production.

On-site manufacturing avoids supply chain problems

A team of Parisian hospital staff immediately went to self-help and printed medical material with 60 3D printers. They even created the templates themselves by scanning the required objects with special scanners. They also used the scanners to check the quality of the printed parts. Things such as valves, intubation material, syringe pumps, masks and medical connectors were urgently needed. The biggest hurdle, according to the head behind the initiative, surgeon Roman Khonsari, was not the technical, but the legal questions to get the approval of the authorities. Khonsari also sees 3-D technology not only as an aid for the acute emergency situation, but also as an opportunity to quickly produce the material needed on the spot in disaster situations.

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These are just a few examples from many. All well-known companies in the industry, such as EOS from Krailling near Munich, Formlabs from Boston or Materialize from Brussels, the US manufacturer Stratasys, the scanner company Artec and many others are taking part. Manufacturing on the spot avoids supply chain problems, for example due to closed borders and delivery difficulties due to the increased demand.

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Mass production is still not the domain of additive manufacturing. 3D printing cannot compete when it comes to parts that can be injection-molded millions of times. But now the weights are shifting. Many 3-D machines can produce in parallel in so-called printing farms and thus also achieve larger quantities. Thanks to better machines, optimized printing processes and materials, the printing time has already been considerably reduced.

Swab sticks from the 3D printer. In Spain, delivery bottlenecks were bridged.

(Photo: Formlabs)

Formlabs, for example, has farms with up to 60 machines. Depending on the size of the components, several of them can be manufactured per machine and other parts on any number of other machines. Everything is controlled centrally from a kind of control panel, the software distributes the print jobs to the machines as efficiently as possible. Formlabs is also working on having robots handle the machines, such as refilling materials.

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Automation is also part of the Polyline project, a consortium led by the 3D printer manufacturer EOS, in which 15 companies and research institutions participate, including BMW and several German universities and Fraunhofer institutes. It is supported by the Federal Ministry of Research with 10.7 million euros. The aim is to develop a digitized production line with which plastic components for the automotive industry are to be manufactured. Standards are to be developed that allow additional use of the possibilities of additive manufacturing in the area of ​​industrial production.

The real strength of 3-D printing is flexibility. Not only because you only need one file to print something, no elaborate molds or expensive milling machines. Technology also makes it possible to manufacture things that could not be produced in a conventional way. For example, it’s about hollow components with support structures on the inside – comparable to bird bones, light and yet extremely stable. This is playing an increasingly important role, particularly in sectors such as the aircraft industry with its comparatively small numbers.

But the crisis still has to be overcome. Because it was possible to react very quickly, Stefan Holländer hopes that she will get out of it well. “We were worried because many customers were suddenly no longer there,” but then many orders came in. “Half of the orders went to private addresses,” he says – the employees were in the home office.

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