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3D Printing Software & Realizing the Dream of Advanced Digital Manufacturing

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Note from Scott Dunham, Vice President of Additive Manufacturing Research at SmarTech

3D printing technology is often heralded as a digital manufacturing technology. And for some reason, this really gets a lot of people excited. What’s the big deal? 3D printing takes a digitally designed ‘part’ in the form of a converted CAD file, and then makes the part in an automated and computer controlled process. So what? The world has been using computer controlled manufacturing technologies for a long time.

What if I now told you that 3D printing technology is not only digital manufacturing technology, but it is the digital manufacturing technology. Well, obviously this wouldn’t really be true, for a couple reasons. First off, we just established that digital manufacturing has been in existence and widely utilized for some time. Secondly, a lot of what is 3D printed today doesn’t really qualify under “manufacturing” in the context of fabrication of production parts going into products and systems as a final component.

And yet, I would still stand by that statement -3D printing is indeed the digital manufacturing technology. At least for the future. How? This is where 3D printing software comes in to really expand the idea.

Making a model or a prototype or a final use part using a computer controlled technology isn’t the revolution. The revolution is in applying vastly available digital resources to empower manufacturing. Things like near-infinite cloud computing power. 3D printing is the digital manufacturing technology because physics-based limitations are alleviated, and the ability to actually digitally control the manufacturing process is increased by orders of magnitude, all through the concept of layer-by-layer manufacturing. In fact, don’t think about 3D printing processes like metal powder bed fusion or photopolymerization as ‘building parts,’ think about them as ‘distributing mass in a volume of physical space.’

Software is often referred to as the glue which holds together the hardware and materials in 3D printing. But for the future, not only is it the glue connecting these two other elements, but it will also become the catalyst by which the potential of advanced digital manufacturing can be realized. In our latest report for software for 3D printing, SmarTech explores the current efforts to actualize through 3D printing digital manufacturing software concepts which have existed for nearly a decade or more, but which haven’t yet been able to be fully exploited. Thanks to additive manufacturing, all of that will change.

This is the first in a multi-part series of blogs which lay out how the world of manufacturing will change through a digital manufacturing revolution powered by additive, and catalyzed by software. We aren’t simply talking about designing digitally and then using computers to control a machine to fabricate the design. We’re talking about totally rethinking how parts and products are designed, function, optimized, made, qualified, and certified.