My contribution to the April 2019 issue of tED Magazine, the official publication of the NAED, provides some interesting what-ifs concerning the potential of 3D printing in lighting. Reprinted with permission.
3D printing is a process where materials are layered by computer control to build an object from a digital 3D model or CAD file. Originally based on layering of material via inkjet printer heads, the term 3D printing now encompasses many different processes also known as additive manufacturing.
As with other industries experimenting with this developing technology—such as automotive, medical, and aerospace—the lighting industry is now starting to evaluate 3D printing. Near term, this method offers a prototyping and custom component manufacturing tool. Long term, it has the potential to impact how lighting products are made, including product development, customization, innovation, and inventory reduction.
“Additive manufacturing is just starting to receive interest from the lighting industry,” said Nadarajah Narendran, Professor, Director of Research, Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is developing an industry alliance to help overcome technical barriers impeding adoption. “With 3D-printed lighting, it may be possible to manufacture individual lighting components such as heat sinks, electrical traces, or optics, and eventually complete fixtures.”
Currently, early adopters include industrial designers and manufacturers using the technology to create novel designs and build custom luminaire components. According to Narendran, players include Signify’s Telecaster custom lighting brand in Europe; Gantri, a custom design and 3D printing house serving designers looking to create novel lighting products; Tempo Lighting, a manufacturer using 3D printing to make LED components; and South Korean manufacturer LG, which is promoting the construction of 3D-printed OLED luminaires. Narendran predicts adoption will grow over the next five years as 3D printing becomes more popular as a manufacturing option for custom lighting.
“Speed (delivery of parts in days, rather than weeks or months), flexibility (easy design variations/iterations), and cost efficiency (no tooling, no minimum order quantity, direct CAD-to-part manufacture) are the core benefits for the industry,” said Marco de Visser, Editor-in-Chief, 3DPrinting.Lighting, who believes adoption will become mainstream in the next 5-10 years. According to de Visser, the dynamics of today’s lighting industry appear to favor additive manufacturing. Speed to market is critical, product diversification is on the rise with specialized functionality and declining volumes, price erosion is driving manufacturers to focus on reducing cost and increasing value, and many products are manufactured overseas and shipped to the U.S. Additive manufacturing has the potential to address pain points in each of these areas and provide value, he pointed out.
Complexity is free: Aside from the printer itself, all that is theoretically needed to produce a product is the raw material and a digital design file. Designers can create any number of whimsical designs with less limitation to innovation. Customization and modification are rendered more accessible, enabling lighting precisely tuned to individual application requirements. Luminaires could be created, tested, and modified in a shorter timeframe.
No assembly required: 3D printing theoretically makes cost-effective on-demand production possible, with no extraordinary upfront investments in tooling and inventory, with the ability to order a single item, and with potentially shorter lead times. Fabrication is compressed into manufacture of lighting products with all components included, from heat sinks to circuit boards, which can reduce size and cost. Production can occur anywhere there is a printer with a skilled operator, resulting in a shorter and more local supply chain. Replacement during maintenance would be simplified by merely maintaining a digital file.
If this technology achieves broad adoption, what would this mean for distributors? As with other novel lighting technologies, both opportunity and disruption. “It is possible in the future that distributors will maintain 3D printers and materials and digital design files to print components on-demand,” Narendran said. “This would reduce the need for maintaining large warehouses to stock slow-moving spare parts that cost a lot of money.”
Narendran described a typical new construction project realizing the potential of 3D printing in a future distributed manufacturing scenario. After the design team conceptualized the luminaires needed to satisfy the application requirement, the manufacturer’s engineering team would identify the material and printer needs and engage distributors able to make the luminaires. The distributor would produce a few luminaires for test installation, giving the design team the chance to modify the design and associated digital files. Once the luminaire was approved, the distributor would produce the exact quantity and ship, and then might maintain the digital file so as to produce replacements for future maintenance needs.
“With the ultimate goal being localized or on-site, on-time, and on-demand fabrication of lighting fixtures, the role of the electrical distributor will change,” Narendran added. “As an example, the parts and fixture inventories maintained by electrical distributors will drastically change with no SKUs in stock other than the digital files of the parts required to be maintained. Localized manufacturing facilities with 3D printing facilities or demand site facilities would be used to fabricate the required components and fixtures.”
“The most disruptive scenario for 3D printing in the lighting industry includes bypassing the traditional luminaire designer, wholesaler, or even the manufacturer itself by the professional end-user,” de Visser said. “This occurs when project specifiers and lighting designers start to design and print their own customized luminaires for their projects. Both hardware and software solutions have arrived at a level that is significantly lowering the bar for developers. It makes 3D printing accessible for not only highly skilled professionals but also professionals with some basic understanding of lighting design and engineering.”
When a major technology is introduced, there is often a period of hype where future potential exceeds current reality, and the tech may fizzle out. 3D printing appears to be gaining traction; according to International Data Corporation (IDC), global spending on 3D printing—including hardware, materials, software, and services—is predicted to grow to $23 billion by 2022, a compound annual growth rate of 18.4 percent.
As other industries support the development of the technology, it will become increasingly viable for lighting beyond simple prototyping. Though mainstream adoption for some level of luminaire manufacturing is not expected for years, it is becoming viable for certain applications. And as it is potentially disruptive to electrical distribution, distributors should become familiar with its development.