3D printing is on the precipice of transforming custom manufacturing. The advancements in printing technology and speed, as well as material capabilities in recent years, have pushed the boundaries of 3D printing. Gone are the days when the technology was limited to just rapid prototyping.
Today 3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing, is set to influence production capabilities across industries right from medicine to aerospace and auto industry, to the fashion industry.
The technology has the potential to support on-demand, local production of different products, tools, and parts. In the coming years, 3D printing could very well be reshaping not only design processes but also manufacturing and logistics processes and be cable of supporting full-scale production across industries.
So what is 3D Printing?
3D printing essentially is the process of using 3D digital models to create three-dimensional solid objects.
The process of building these solid objects is additive, which means the object is created by successively adding layers of a particular material. The layers are proportionate to successive cross-sections of the original digital model.
Although material limitations are being challenged, primarily because the technology is still evolving, 3D printing can be done using a wide range of materials which include pure metals as well as metal alloys, thermoplastics, and ceramics.
A Brief History of 3D Printing
The potential that 3D printing offers is immense and very exciting considering the scale and scope of where it can be used, and more importantly, what it can achieve. However, if one is to completely embrace and appreciate where 3D printing has reached today, it is necessary to map the history of the technology.
1981–1999: The Beginning
The history of 3D printing can be mapped back to 1981 when Dr. Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute developed additive processes for creating 3D plastic models using photo-hardening thermoset polymer.
However, it was the invention of stereolithography (the process of creating 3D models by using digital data to create a physical object) by Charles Hull in 1984, which actually pushed forward 3D-printing technology for further development and innovation.
The first stereolithographic apparatus (SLA) machine was built by Charles Hull’s company, 3D Systems. The machine enabled faster fabrication of complex parts using an additive process. In 1988, Carl Deckard was granted the patent for selective laser sintering (SLS) technology, another form of 3D printing, which used a laser to fuse powder grains together.
1999–2010: The Formative Years
This period saw 3D printing picking up speed and in particular play a significant role in advancing medicine. The technology was used by scientists to fabricate human organs and a prosthetic limb and to also use 3D to bio-print blood vessels using human cells.
It was also in this time period when 3D printing was exposed to an open-source initiative by Dr. Adrian Bowyer, where the aim was to build a 3D printer which could replicate or build itself. In 2006, the SLS machine was made commercially viable allowing for on-demand production of industrial parts.
2011–Present Day: Exposure to New Technology and Future Prospects
The beauty of any tech innovation is that the evolution phase never stops. The implications and potential of a technology which enables the creation of solid objects based on 3D digital models are endless. And that's exactly what has been happening since 2011 to date.
The development of 3D printing machines which are faster and more efficient and the use of newer 3D printing materials can revolutionize just about any industry.
While Urbee, created in 2010, was the first of its kind 3D printed prototype car, in 2011 a 3D food printer was built by Cornell University. These are just two examples of what 3D can and has achieved and the limitless potential the technology offers in the coming years.
What are the Pros and Cons of 3D Printing?
3D printing is evolving at a rapid pace and there is no denying that the technology has reached a tipping-point given the kind of advancements it offers across industries. However, every tech innovation comes with its own set of pros and cons.
So it is important to look at both sides of the coin and then decide whether the pros of the technology or its cons outweigh each other. If you are considering using 3D technology, then keep the following in mind.
The Pros of 3D Printing
1. Extensive Manufacturing Opportunities
3D printing offers extensive customizable manufacturing options. The advancement of 3D printing as a next-generation technology can enable faster manufacturing of local and on-demand products which are not limited to a specific industry.
2. Faster Speed of Manufacturing and Prototyping
The time to translate a design into a functional prototype can be effectively shortened with 3D printing. Which essentially also means that manufacturing of products can be done at an equally fast pace. This could lead to savings by way of time which can then be used to both improve on and enhance productivity.
3. Cost-effective Option for both Mass-produced and Customized Products
While the setting-up costs of 3D printing technology are on the upper side, it can be a highly cost-effective manufacturing avenue for several reasons including the following;
- Advancements in 3D printing technology and the opportunities for using it in homes and small manufacturing units as well as across large-scale industries is increasing, therefore, enabling users to create customized versions of items as well mass-producing products at cheaper costs.
- Newer technology advancements will also ensure that production costs continue to fall.
- The cost of production for customized and mass-produced items is the same.
- Industries, in particular, SMEs can benefit from huge savings on transportation logistics and storage since the products or parts don’t need to be stored in a physical location – the manufacturer can simply print products as and when required.
- Since the needed products or parts can be produced locally, and on-demand, it saves transportation costs for the manufacturer thus reducing not only logistics expenses but also time and labor.
4. Domestic Production can get a Boost
Domestic production can get a boost if manufacturers who currently outsource production either for production cost benefits or to save on labor, will be able to produce domestically on-demand and at much cheaper rates.
Domestic production would also ensure savings on customs duties as well as other expenses such as insurance against damage on imported goods.
In addition, local production would cut-down on production time if parts can be locally produced instead of having to import them from far off locations or countries.
5. No Need for Additional Inventory
Most manufacturers today spend extensively not only on warehousing and transportation costs of the actual product but also on storing additional inventory for the products.
However, since 3D printing enables faster production at cheaper rates, manufacturers will not be required to maintain additional inventory or store additional parts in anticipation of future consumer demand.
Also, the costs involved in storing additional inventory can be substantial by way of warehousing costs, transportation, insurance, and tracking.
If the demand for additional goods or parts increases, manufacturers can use 3D printing to produce specific goods at the time of sale only thus cutting down on the need to store excess inventory.
6. The Role of 3D Printing in the Field of Medicine
3D printing technology offers immense potential in the field of medicine. If organs, tissues, or other human body parts can be manufactured and customized according to individual needs, countless human lives can be saved.
So with the production of organs and other important body parts which can be built and replaced quickly, donor transplantation risks are effectively addressed since the designed organs will contain the DNA readings of the patient.
While the use of 3D printing in this area is still under a lot of review and experimentation in present times, this could very well be the reality of medicine in the future.
7. Job Opportunities
Every technology innovation involves hard and tireless work of experts. As technology advances, generational job opportunities open up. 3D printing is no different. Since its conception in the early 80s, 3D printing has seen a steady rise which means at each stage experts and technicians helped design and build different kinds of printers.
New experts will step in with more advanced versions of 3D printing technology going forward as well and because of lower taxes and fewer regulations, this ability is that much easier.
Furthermore, every new generation of printers will require experts who can both maintain and fix any breakdowns.
As technology becomes more accessible to wider sections of the population, experts and designers from different fields will be able to expand the market and delivery of their products thus creating more job opportunities in a market where there are already lots of jobs available (the job market has been sunny since 2017).
The Cons of 3D Printing
While the pros of 3D printing are impressive, there are a number of limitations of the technology. Consider the following.
1. Limitations in 3D Printing Material
Although the range of materials which can be used by 3D printers to produce items has expanded to include ceramic, thermoplastics, resin, and metal alloys, the range is still very limited.
However, a lot of development work is currently underway in this area and there is every possibility that in the near future, a wider range of material choices will be made available.
2. Performance Levels are not Up to the Mark
Although 3D printing speeds and scope of production have improved through the years, the technology is yet to catch up with traditional avenues for the same tasks.
This not only signals performance and speed issues but more importantly there are limitations to the actual physical size of replicated products such as buildings.
And if product size is an issue, then mass-production obviously becomes a challenge. This is not the case with traditional manufacturing, which incidentally still continues to be a cheaper option when it comes to mass-production of items.
Another limitation with 3D printing is that the replicated item will need finishing touches to give the rough finish, that complete smooth polished look which we are so used to.
3. Printing of Copyrighted Items could Increase
The use of 3D printing technology will make it very easy to replicate a wider range of objects which could include copyrighted items as well. Differentiating the replica from the original could become a huge challenge.
Items which are currently protected under heavy-duty patents and licensing laws run the danger of being open for local production leading to a reduction not only in their monetary value but more importantly in their quality.
Examples of such items include medical products, art, or technology solutions among others.
4. Production of Illegal Items could also Increase
In the absence of clear laws or legal and valid limitations on using 3D printing, replication of illegal items which could be dangerous or serve as potential weapons could increase.
It would be difficult to build-in specific control mechanisms or regulations to ensure the safe and legal use of the technology.
Keep in mind that exposure to any kind of open-source initiative can make it more difficult to control the proliferation of technology innovation.
5. Utility vs. Wasteful Production
As long as 3D printing is used to produce items that are necessary or of importance, there shouldn’t be any issues.
However, if the technology is used to produce items which are of no specific use or if they carry a heavy carbon footprint, it could be a huge problem.
Though the carbon footprint for America, and not countries like Germany, have actually been decreasing. There are lots of factors here.
There some other news on this front – new processes allow for recycling of 3D printed items. Hence any future advancements and expansions to the technology will also include provisions for recycling 3D products.
There Are Lots of Possibilities
The 3D printing industry is at an interesting and exciting place right now. Considering that speed and scale of manufacturing have gone up substantially and that today we have access to immense computing power as well as next-generation technology such as robotics and 3D pens, the future for 3D printing looks very promising.
However, one needs to be careful about not getting carried away into the euphoria of limitless and cost-effective manufacturing of products since the technology does have its share of limitations.
In the coming years, we could be looking at technology advancements capable of supporting not only faster manufacturing of goods, but also capable of delivering cost and production benefits which could outweigh and replace many of the traditional avenues of the current times.
At present, the pace of development and use of 3D printing in various fields is highly encouraging, and there is every scope for huge gains not only for large-scale manufacturing sectors but also in creating customizable items for individual purposes.