This week, a look into how companies are using 3D printing in their operations.

3D printing is a topic we seem to hear lots about lately, usually related to some seemingly sci-fi development that's now been made a reality thanks to the technology.

But it's a piece of kit that's also being put to use in Kiwi SMEs every day, and in a huge range of scenarios.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process by which a computer-controlled machine makes 3D objects by depositing layers of material. This week I've spoken to people in companies ranging from a rocket lab to a packaging firm about how they're using that capability in their operations.

Peter Beck is the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, an Auckland-based company that develops rocket systems and technologies, which has around 50 employees.

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The firm first invested in plastic 3D printers around six years ago, says Beck, initially to help with prototype development.

More recently, however, the company has been working with metallic 3D printing and in April this year unveiled its Rutherford Engine, which is predominantly made with 3D printed components.

"It's a very high performance engine, and to get the performance we require, in some areas that's impossible using traditional manufacturing techniques because we can create geometries with 3D printing that you can't create using any other processes," explains Beck.

"So it's not just about cost, it's about performance and part reliability. And of course a really important factor for us is manufacturing time. To illustrate that, it takes us about three days to print an engine, but to do that using traditional manufacturing techniques would probably take three months."

Industrial designer Ross Stevens is a senior lecturer at Victoria University's school of design, whose research interests include additive manufacturing technologies.

Stevens says 3D printing could prove a real boon to New Zealand industry; New Zealanders are good at thinking up new ideas, he says, and this is a technology that allows people to more easily turn their ideas into commercial products.

But more education is needed about what the technology can and can't do.

"[3D printing is] not one process that does everything; there are a huge range of machines with hugely different capabilities, so you need to have an understanding of that and the process of printing before you can start to understand how you might be able to apply it," says Stevens.

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Warwick Downing, a director of Rapid Advanced Manufacturing.
Warwick Downing, a director of Rapid Advanced Manufacturing.

Warwick Downing is a director of Tauranga-based company Rapid Advanced Manufacturing (RAM), which provides other businesses with metal additive manufacturing services.

RAM was set up around three years ago and the scope of its work is broadening - ranging from working with defence companies to providing medical components - but producing industrial parts currently accounts for the bulk of its work.

While many people think of 3D printing as just a prototyping technology, Downing says RAM is increasingly using it for production.

"This is where a lot of manufacturing is heading - into mass customisation," says Downing. "I think that plays well to New Zealand's strengths, not just because it changes our ideas of volume in manufacturing, but it's about using technology to produce clever products that are cost competitive globally."

COMING UP: The 'lean' concept involves reducing waste in a business and more effectively using available resources. It's often something we think of big manufacturing companies doing, but what are some smaller businesses that have embraced lean thinking? If you've got a story to tell, drop me a note.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab

Peter Beck is the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, an Auckland-based company that develops rocket systems and technologies, which has around 50 employees.

Why did you first start using 3D printing in your business?

When you look at the cost of a rocket you quickly end up looking at the rocket engine, and when you look at the rocket engine it's a hugely complex and powerful machine. So the manufacturing processes that are typically employed to produce a rocket motor are incredibly specialised, using very delicate and time consuming manufacturing methods.

We've got a pretty lofty goal of increasing the launch frequency to orbit significantly over the current state of the art. If we're looking at making a significant impact in the space industry by increasing the launch frequency, those kinds of manufacturing techniques are just not going to deliver on our requirements.

We didn't select to use 3D printing because it's a cool technology that's exciting and new; it was really the only technology that showed promise to be able to produce components with the complexity, reliability, high performance, cost and in the time we need. It's fair to say we're definitely pushing the boundaries of the technology. We're generally doing stuff that's considered impossible in normal metallic 3D printing.

When did you first get 3D printing machines into your building and start learning what you could do with them?

We've been involved in the technology for quite some time. We first invested in plastic 3D printers probably six years ago, and we use those for a lot of prototype development. We didn't try to make components with them because they're obviously plastic, but it was a very powerful engineering tool to see how things could fit together and how systems might work. So we've had a long history with the technology and more recently have moved into working with metallics.

What kind of investment is involved in buying these machines and getting them up and running?

It's a very significant investment - not just in capital but, as you alluded, with human capital. We've got some folks here in our team who originally developed some 3D printing machines two decades ago. Those people don't just drop out of the sky; they're hard people to find. So it's a big investment, but it's well warranted for the outcome.

More specifically, I've read that 3D printing was used a lot in the production of the Rutherford Engine, which the company recently unveiled?

Yes, by volume the vast majority of the Rutherford's components are 3D printed. It's a very high performance engine, and to get the performance we require, in some areas that's impossible using traditional manufacturing techniques because we can create geometries with 3D printing that you can't create using any other processes. So it's not just about cost, it's about performance and part reliability. And of course a really important factor for us is manufacturing time. To illustrate that, it takes us about three days to print an engine, but to do that using traditional manufacturing techniques would probably take three months.

Rocket Lab's Rutherford Engine.
Rocket Lab's Rutherford Engine.

What were the challenges of using the technology in this way?

In the initial stages of the project we worked with a lot of experts in the field and tried to establish what was feasible and possible and then move from there.

There's a very closely coupled relationship between part design and process with 3D printing.

Chances are that if you design a part that you would normally manufacture using traditional processes it's not going to be optimised for additive manufacturing processes.

Using this technology is not just about a printing process; it goes right back to part design and examining what the part has to ultimately accomplish to get a really successful outcome.

That's where I think businesses fall down with using this technology; they're producing a particular part in a practical way that is optimised for a traditional manufacturing process, then they enter the world of 3D printing and they just expect to print the same part and it will come out roses. That's not the case at all. You have to optimise part design for the process, which requires a lot of learning for an organisation. And the technology is moving so rapidly that in another year's time you'll have totally different capabilities for printing.

What do you think the future holds for this technology, particularly in your industry?

I can't wait to see what's in store in the next five years. The printers themselves are going to become a lot more accessible, a lot more affordable, and there are huge advances in software already being made. It's a really exciting time for manufacturing. I don't think you'll ever see mass manufactured parts on 3D printers, but we'll certainly see medium volumes and a rethink about how you manufacture components.

Within Rocket Lab, in future I can see us printing a lot more components that we currently machine. That will ultimately drive the cost of our launch vehicle down further, which obviously opens space up more.