While other facets of 3D printing get the ink, the real bleeding edge of the technology lies in the manufacturing sector.

From metals to methods, additive manufacturers are on a quest to make 3D printing a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing processes.

There's little doubt that additive manufacturing has already revolutionized production. While most of the 3D printing, rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing systems in play require expensive materials as input, engineers for the German machining company Arburg have developed a process to clear the way for the mold-less production of one-off parts and small-volume batches.

But it's the process itself which may prove a breakthrough.

Using tiny plastic droplets, the Arburg process utilizes relatively cheap granular materials. The "Freeformer" produces parts directly from 3D CAD files – without the use of a mold – by building up layers which boast a rigidity of up to 80% that of comparable injection-molded parts.

"The Freeformer allows you to efficiently produce fully functional components from commercially available plastic granulates without a mold," said Eberhard Duffner, development lead at Arburg. "It will change the conceptual framework of plastic product manufacturing over the long term."

The Arburg process produces components without support structures, layer by layer, and does so by spraying minute droplets. What the company calls a "discharge unit" is essentially a nozzle which remains stationary as components are moved on a carrier. The nozzle is rapidly opened and closed with piezo technology as a component is moved on a carrier which features a choice of three or five axes.

Key to the process is the clocked nozzle capable of opening and closing up to 100 times a second.

The Freeformer can make plastic parts with extremely complex geometries using up to two components or colors for various levels of functionality in objects with hard and soft material combinations.