3D printing as a technology is increasingly used as duct tape in an industrial environment. The silver-gray cloth adhesive tape is strong and tough, wear and water-resistant, and can be applied to solve any and all manner of problems. Originally adhesive applied to strong cotton duck cloth was used for paint canvases, this tape is a necessary addition to many DIY-ers and professional installers arsenals.
The ultimate wide scale adoption of duck tape, today generally referred to as duct tape, came from Vesta Stoudt, an ordnance-factory worker and mother of two Navy sailors, who worried that problems with ammunition box seals would cost soldiers precious time in battle. She wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 with the idea to seal the boxes with a fabric tape, which she had tested at her factory. The letter was forwarded to the War Production Board, which put Johnson & Johnson on the job. The Revolite division of Johnson & Johnson had made medical adhesive tapes from duck cloth from 1927 and a team headed by Revolite’s Johnny Denoye and Johnson & Johnson’s Bill Gross developed the new adhesive tape, designed to be ripped by hand, not cut with scissors.
One of the key elements of duct tape is that it is easy to apply precisely, easy to cut by hand or mouth, and that it can be removed. It’s a solution that can be customized for fit or purpose with relatively little means, a temporary fix that serves well and can be removed well.
In contrast, Scotch tape can be removed without so much as a trace, but would not be as tough or strong as duct tape. Superglue ties together many things, but only along fault lines and is difficult to remove or undo. Soldering would also work well for many problems, requires more tools to implement, is more difficult to undo, and does not work on so many different materials. Welding can also work, but not on everything, and it is very difficult to undo and requires tools.
As with Goldilocks and her favorite bed or bowl of porridge, duct tape is just the right solution. What’s more, it’s just the right solution for many new and unknown problems. One of the most valuable things about duct tape is that you can apply it to new problems and new materials in new situations. In the face of the unknown and Murphy’s Law, duct tape is the go-to fix because it works widely and its application is reversible. Duct tape may not work, but it will also probably not make the problem worse.
Lately, in the industrial and manufacturing arena, I’m seeing more and more examples of 3D printing being used as a duct tape for all manner of solutions. 3D printing, after all, is a versatile, low-cost solution that can be implemented quickly. We are also easily reversible, and our parts are just tough enough to last in many cases. This is a very significant development.
In flow, manifolds, valves, machine building, aviation and on the factory floor, generally we can see a lot of bottom-up solutions make their way to manufacturing. Top-down projects that are CEO-driven often collide with reality when they meet the nitty-gritty of the factory floor and have to be implemented by people who don’t see the value in disrupting their perfectly ordinary working lives.
Well-scoped 3D printing projects may be successful in businesses, but then either their value will be seen as limited or the cost will be high. This is the “3D printed bracket” problem, where we made a 3D printed part that demonstrates everything well and works, but with an inordinate amount of effort and cost. Translating this situation into one where business and engineering leaders demand our technology is difficult. In these cases, we’re often seen as a fanciful, future cool thing not grounded in any business reality.
What does work is if the outcome of a limited project or a CEO-driven project is so advantageous as to make it strategic for the firm. For example, “we can make better orthopedics that give better patient outcomes and faster at one-tenth of the cost.” Even then, we can see a decade of lag between a proof point and companies retooling around additive.
The one approach that has consistently worked in implementing 3D printing, however, is the bottom-up approach. In this case Dieter has an Ultimaker at home and brings a jig to the office at Volkswagen to show the guys. It’s tested in a relatively rule- and regulation-free part of the floor and operation. Then, slowly, in a drip fed way implemented across the organization.
This is beautiful. Here, we’re not ruffling feathers or up against institutional resistance, but we’re making everyone’s lives easier. There are many examples of these kinds of improvised solutions becoming successful and even leading to print farms with hundreds of desktop machines making many different parts.
But, what do we as an industry do? We all start writing about jigs and fixtures. Duck tape was initially used for ammo boxes and later pitched at people repairing heating ducts, but its in becoming an-almost-everything solution that it becomes the most valuable.
Instead of pitching jigs and fixtures, we should be pitching our technology itself as a versatile problem solver for the factory floor. 3D printers should be a solve-any-part-problem device. Does your problem have an object as the solution? Use 3D printing. We should be the go-anywhere technology that you need to have to tackle the unknown. I never know what I’m going to use duct tape for but I have it just in case. That kind of need-it-for-the-unknown is a good driver for 3D printing. Why, ma’am, the killer app is the technology itself.
Analogous to this: computers were used as word processing machines, but very much were understood to be universal calculation machines whose functionality could be expanded significantly. Likewise, we should be universal making machines that you need to have just like you have duct tape.
Some examples from industry:
One could classify all of these cases as examples of 3D printed spare parts, bridge manufacturing, prototyping, tooling or other applications. This may make sense for your website’s sub-navigation, but obscures one of the best reasons to deploy our technology. Regardless of your application or industry, we are industrial strength duct tape for you. 3D printing can be used to solve all manner of unforeseen problems. Through unlocking your creativity, 3D printing can be a versatile problem-solving technology that will have you successfully meet the unforeseen.