Someday, Boeing Co. should be able to make an airplane wing without cutting or bending any metal, says Michael Hayes, a design engineer at the aircraft maker.
The wing would be formed, one razor thin layer at a time, by fusing powdered metal or other materials with a device resembling a giant office printer.
Although such technology, known as 3-D printing or additive manufacturing, has been around for 25 years, it is mainly used for making models, prototypes and smaller items ranging from hearing aids to hip implants and jewelry. Now big manufacturers including Boeing, General Electric Co. and Honeywell Inc. are exploring ways to use it to make bigger pieces in higher volumes.
“We’re getting to the point where we want to make giant steps,” says Boeing’s Mr. Hayes. Some makers of 3-D printing equipment believe that car-part stores eventually will keep their inventories in digital form—as software containing the instructions for making each item—and print out items on demand.
The Obama administration has latched onto 3-D printing as a way to make the U.S. more competitive against low-wage rivals and is spending $30 million to establish an additive-manufacturing research institute. The site is due to be announced by mid-August.
But so far, despite lots of recent hype, 3-D printing is an infinitesimal sliver of global manufacturing, and experts say it will have to get much faster and cheaper before it can account for a sizable chunk of industrial production.
The technology doesn’t require many workers but does create high-skilled jobs operating or making machines and developing computer code. Abe Reichental, chief executive of 3D Systems Corp., Rock Hill, S.C., a maker of the printers, says the technology also will “re-localize” manufacturing of many items. He notes that printers, costing as little as about $500 or up to $1.2 million, can be set up almost anywhere, which will allow for production of items when and where they are needed and eliminate the costs of shipping and warehousing. The Defense Department is enthusiastic about the technology, which could at some point allow it to make parts in the field rather than waiting for them to be shipped from another continent.
3-D printing also is “an enabler” for entrepreneurs who want to make products but can’t afford elaborate factories and don’t want to entrust their manufacturing to faraway firms, Mr. Reichental says. They wouldn’t need to create expensive tools or molds, either.
The technology opens up new design possibilities, says David Burns, president of ExOne Co., a North Huntingdon, Pa., maker of 3-D printers. Traditional manufacturing typically involves taking a big chunk of metal and cutting and shaping it into a useful object. The design is often kept simple to reduce the number and difficulty of steps and hold down production costs. With 3-D printing, everything is controlled by a computer code; an intricate design is no harder for the printer to spit out than a simple one.
Though the technology originated in the U.S., European companies, such as EOS GmbH of Germany and Arcam AB of Sweden, are now leading producers of 3-D printers that make metal objects. Terry Wohlers, an industry consultant, says companies in Asia also are investing heavily in 3-D printing but so far aren’t technological leaders.
Mr. Wohlers expects the world-wide market for additive-manufacturing products and services to reach $2.14 billion this year, up from $1.71 billion in 2011, but still only 0.02% of global manufacturing output.
For all its advantages, 3-D printing is limited by high costs for the special types of metals, plastics, composites or ceramics needed. A wider array of materials is available for traditional manufacturing, generally at much lower costs. 3-D printing also tends to be slower for high-volume production. Makers of the machinery say the process will get faster and cheaper as the technology improves and more manufacturers adopt it, providing economies of scale.
Another obstacle: the lack of industry-recognized standards for the materials, processes and testing methods.
For now, 3-D printing best suits products that are highly complex, need to be customized or are produced in small volumes, such as dental implants or parts for race cars.
GE hopes to use the technology to make probes that are passed over the skin to record ultrasound images. Etching the required patterns needed to create a high-quality image on these probes is so complicated that GE currently uses Norwegian watchmakers to do the work under microscopes.
United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney aircraft-engine unit is using the process to make blades and vanes in compressors inside jet engines. Honeywell’s aerospace unit employs it to build heat exchangers and metal brackets but expects to find far more applications, says Bob Witwer, vice president of advanced technology at the company’s aerospace unit.
Boeing already makes about 300 different smaller aircraft parts using 3-D printing, including ducts that carry cool air to electronic equipment. Some of these ducts have complicated shapes and formerly had to be assembled from numerous pieces, boosting labor costs.
When the dishwasher in a Boeing cafeteria in St. Louis broke down recently, the company’s plumber didn’t want to wait for a plastic replacement part to be shipped to the site. He asked Mr. Hayes, the Boeing engineer, to replicate the part on a computer screen and print it out. That took about 30 minutes.
James R. Hagerty and Kate Linebaugh for the WSJ