Additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3-D printing, is a revolutionary manufacturing process in which a material is layered to build an object under computer control based on a digital model or CAD file.
The automotive, medical and aerospace industries are experimenting with this technology, along with major players such as Amazon. Interest in its potential is driving the rapid growth expected to build a global market of $23 billion by 2022, according to International Data Corp.
As 3-D printing continues to develop, the lighting industry is beginning to show interest. In the short term, it offers a tool for prototyping and custom component manufacturing. Longer term, it may change the way some lighting products are manufactured and sold from development to inventory.
“In about five years, 3-D printing will become more popular among lighting fixture manufacturers to deliver custom lighting fixtures,” said Prof. Nadarajah Narendran, director of research, Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y. “The ability for a manufacturer to provide a custom product and a unique design that matches the aesthetics of a space is one of the biggest benefits of 3-D printing for lighting.”
In a future where the technology’s potential is fully realized, theoretically, all it would take to build a lighting product from scratch would be a digital file, a printer and raw material. Because of this, designers could create any number of repeatable products manufactured for very precise application requirements with minor limitations to innovation. Products would be able to be conceived, tested and modified in less time, with a compressed time to market. They could be cost-effective and quickly manufactured as complete units (without fabricating separate components) in any volume and on demand anywhere and with potential impacts on the supply chain, from sourcing to inventory and cost. Replacement for maintenance purposes would only require keeping a digital file.
“Being able to print a fixture on-site and on-demand would benefit the customer, manufacturer and local construction industry,” Narendran said. “For solid-state lighting, benefits include custom components, rapid prototyping, faster new product introductions and reduced fixture cost. This kind of printing will also enable the design of parts that cannot be manufactured by traditional methods.”
He pointed to several companies currently working with 3-D printing in the lighting industry. In Europe, Signify recently launched Telecaster, a division dedicated to producing custom lighting. San Francisco-based Gantri provides custom design and 3-D printing to develop novel lighting products. Luminaire manufacturer Tempo Lighting, Irvine, Calif., has leveraged 3-D printing to develop LED luminaire components, and South Korean manufacturer LG has promoted 3-D printing for OLED luminaires.
A new construction project leveraging 3-D printing in the future, Narendran added, might involve a design team that conceptualizes the lighting products necessary to satisfy the project’s requirements. The manufacturer would source a distributor or other partner that would locally produce a few products for a trial installation, inviting the designers to modify the design. After submitting an approved digital file, the distributor would manufacture and ship the required volume and then maintain the file for future needs.
In such a future, electrical contractors would have to be nimble and able to service a growing market for 3-D-printed products, while continuing to serve traditional supply chains. With 3-D printing, specifying contractors may develop lighting products in collaboration with customers, requiring new skillsets. Product design could conceivably become democratized and sold as intellectual property. Contractors may get involved during project trial installations to contribute to on-the-fly modifications prior to volume commitment. Installation may be similar to today’s custom luminaires.
Similarly, Narendran pointed out, electrical distribution would adapt as manufacturing shifts toward localized or on-site, on-time and on-demand fabrication. Inventory management would change, with a shift from traditional stock keeping units to digital design files and raw materials. Some distributors may invest to become producers of 3-D printed lighting products.
Often, the introduction of a major technology includes a period of hype where potential outstrips reality. Currently, 3-D printing’s promise is largely theoretical as is any expected impacts on the industry. For now, 3-D printing of functional lighting products is relatively rare, and research is needed to advance to the stage where complete functional luminaires are printed for consumption. As the technology is adopted in other industries—resulting in refinement, cost reduction, experience and standards—this technology is expected to become increasingly viable for lighting. For now, electrical contractors may benefit by gaining some familiarity with the basic technology.