Developed in the 80s, 3D printing is nothing new. Only now it’s exponentially more cost-effective and efficient than ever before. As you consider how 3D printing could provide your business with a competitive advantage, you should focus like a laser on your business goals. What problems will 3D printing solve for your company: rapid prototyping, uniquely customized products, etc?
Like most emerging technologies, 3D printing can wind up wasting your time and distracting you from your priorities. Used wisely, 3D printing will help companies to gain an edge by customizing products at rapid rates, producing breakthrough products at hyper-speed, and masterminding new business models.
True – to a point. 3D printing technologies are capable of producing almost any geometry, provided it can be built up in layers, but it can not reproduce some fine details, like small threads or surface textures. The simple fact is that every production process has its limits, and you need to know what they are before you begin your design.
3D printing can produce any geometry, so does not need any design rules
False. From making sure your part is oriented correctly to maximize the strength of the layers (like grain in wood) to designing the part to minimize post-machining and finishing, there are actually many design rules in 3D printing – particularly if you care about part cost, waste and energy consumption.
The specific issues you need to consider will depend on the process you are using, but they all have limits that need to be worked with to get the best results.
3D printing is ideally suited to prototyping and development
True. Rapid prototyping has been around for over 20 years, and the development of low-cost 3D printing is an excellent extension of this – making it possible for every design studio to build test models in-house.
True. 3D printing is ideal for producing one off parts for specialized markets (fantasy gaming, etc.) or for making spare parts. Just make sure the design and material will be safe in the application you have in mind.
3D printing is well suited to volume manufacture
False. Using 3D printing tools for manufacture raises a whole range of issues: will the materials and design be safe to use?; can you fit enough parts in the build chamber to get the unit cost down?; how much post-finishing is needed to achieve good surface quality?; can you achieve consistent sizing and fit across all the parts in the build chamber – and between batches? (The answer is usually no); and will the market accept the price of the product?
This is the most commercially risky 3D printing myth – as it could result in business models built on technologies that are simply not ready yet. For anything other than specialist (medical/aerospace) or one-off production, 3D printing needs some development before it can be considered as a manufacturing process.
3D printed parts do not require tooling, so are cheap to make
False. 3D printed parts are only cheap if you can fit large numbers of small parts into the build chamber used for some processes
3D printing is digital, so it is always extremely accurate and repeatable
False. The way machines are calibrated; the proximity of other parts (particularly with thick wall sections); the rate of post-build cooling; even ambient temperature – all these things can affect the finer details of the build for many 3d printing processes. Understand the limitations of the particular process you want to use – and design around them.
3D printing will create a new industrial revolution and transform manufacturing
Unlikely. There is no doubt that part quality and cost will improve in the next few years, but not to the point where it challenges conventional manufacture for most parts. Like texting, 3D printing will probably create a range of unexpected results, similar to current developments in 3D printed models for fantasy games, and the manufacture of specialized products or spare parts.
3D printing will create some interesting Intellectual Property issues
True. There are already court cases challenging people who have copied and modified data to create their own 3D printed products, and this is likely to escalate with easy access to 3D scanners and cheap 3D software.
During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared, “3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” Yet, despite 3D printing’s boundless possibilities, it hasn’t entered the everyday vernacular of business executives or consumers. 3D printing will have its place in the manufacturing process however it will not change the mass production model.
The fact is that 3-D printing is really, still, an immature technology.