Consider this remarkable factoid: This past January the British Royal Air Force (RAF) was able to service and successfully fly some of its Tornado fighter jets with spare parts that were 3-D printed!

It's no wonder that 3-D printing is frequently referred to as the "third industrial revolution." 3-D printing allows objects to be created quickly and cost-effectively with advanced customization and convenient deployment. By investing in 3-D printing technology, the RAF expects to save £1.2m over the next four years in maintenance and service costs.

Across industries, 3-D printing offers the potential to revolutionize asset maintenance and manufacturing, laying the foundation for speedy, smart factories to pop up in almost any location.

Build a Spare

3-D printing works by depositing a building material layer by layer, in cross sections, to build up a 3-dimensional object. In most consumer-grade 3-D printers the material is a type of polymer. But industrial level 3-D printers can also create metal objects by fusing together metallic powder.

3-D printers take input from 3-D object design software, like CAD or 3-D modeling programs, and can be configured to accurately reproduce the object and maintain correct dimensions. This allows for a high level of flexibility and customization and reduces time-to-manufacture while providing the ability to quickly change a design without costly expenditures.

The applications in industry are wide and varied, from rapid prototyping, to on-demand manufacturing of difficult-to-obtain spare parts, to revolutionizing healthcare through customized prosthetics.

3-D Printing Brilliant Factories — Anywhere

One of the greatest advantages of 3-D printing is its ability to create a factory in almost any location. 3-D printing equipment can be deployed on site and can drastically reduce the costs and time associated with traditional manufacturing supply chains.

Current 3-D printing technology is suited for low-volume, short production runs. But as the technology evolves, 3-D printing will not only improve in terms of quality and speed, but can also leverage the connectivity of the Industrial Internet in innovative ways. Imagine a level of service where real-time feedback from intelligent assets such as wind turbines can trigger on-site 3-D printers to start producing replacement parts as soon as a problem is detected. Cost-effective, quick, and configurable, the connected 3-D printer would serve as the actualization arm of the Industrial Internet.

While still in its infancy, 3-D printing has already been used to make airplane partsweapons, and even human tissue. Both NASA and Airbus have big aerospace plans for 3-D printers, with NASA planning to put a 3-D printer on the International Space Station and Airbus planning to 3-D print an entire plane by 2050.

Coupled with the advances in connectivity, sensors, and analytics, 3-D printing appears poised to be a vital component of the Industrial Internet, helping to provide robust, quick, intuitive, on-demand manufacturing to solve problems across industries.

About the author

GE Digital

Driving Digital Transformation

GE Digital connects streams of machine data to powerful analytics and people, providing industrial companies with valuable insights to manage assets and operations more efficiently. World-class talent and software capabilities help drive digital industrial transformation for big gains in productivity, availability and longevity. We do this by leveraging Predix, our cloud-based operating system, purpose built for the unique needs of industry.