3D printing has been around for nearly 40 years, but its only in the more recent history of the evolution of 3D printing that we’ve really seen 3D printing changing manufacturing in major ways. Starting around 2005, as 3D printing equipment lowered enough in cost to become a viable method of production for applications such as prototyping, design testing and short runs, the industry has seen major advances in the ways that this technology can be applied.
Along with this expansion of 3D printing applications came a major shift in interest and adoption of the technology. 3D printing even enjoyed a short time in the late 2000s as a “buzzword,” leading industry experts and observers to wonder, “Will 3D printers replace manufacturing?
How Is 3D Printing Changing the Manufacturing Industry?
The answer to the question of replacing manufacturing is, in most cases, “no” — at least in the foreseeable future. But if we look instead at how 3D printing will change manufacturing, that process is well underway. Once 3D printing reached the tipping point of accessibility in the mid-2000s, it led to changes occurring in several important areas of manufacturing. These include:
- Prototyping: 3D printing changed the speed, materials and functionality with which prototypes could be efficiently produced, leading to faster overall production, fewer prototyping iterations and lower overall costs. With 3D printing, one-off prototypes can be produced in a matter of hours, with total turnaround times as short as a day.
- Design and testing: When asking, “How has 3D printing changed over the years?” … desktop 3D printers are one of the most important advances. With the advent of desktop 3D printing equipment, every shop and even every designer can have a 3D printer right on their desk. This means designs can quickly be replicated in three-dimensional space, without the need to order a prototype from a vendor. 3D printing technology has even advanced to the point where desktop machines can create useful working prototypes, testing functionality as well as design.
- Short run manufacturing: 3D printing for production is often considered as the payoff of one of the earliest promises of the technology. While we mentioned earlier that 3D printing is unlikely to fully replace traditional manufacturing anytime soon, this is one area where 3D printing can, in fact, be used in place of more traditional methods. Advances in the types of materials available, and the material properties that can be replicated in 3D printing materials, mean that workable, sellable parts can be made through the process.
Advantages of 3D Printing
From the outset, 3D printing has always offered the promise of advantages over traditional manufacturing in certain scenarios. Throughout the evolution of 3D printing, as the technology has been developed, those advantages — and more — have become reality. Let’s take a look at some of them now:
- Better quality prototypes, faster and at lower costs: Before 3D printing, sacrifices typically had to be made in the production of viable prototypes, whether in materials, fidelity to the design, or the speed and cost of prototype creation. Production quality prototypes were available, but costs would typically become prohibitive given the practicalities of one-off production on high-volume machinery. 3D printing, and the pace of advances in materials and equipment speed, means that high-quality prototypes can be created at a fraction of the cost and time involved in other processes.
- Ability to iterate and adjust design: The ability to get high-quality prototypes quickly and at low cost means designers and engineers are able to iterate more efficiently, ultimately resulting in a better product created in less time. When time or cost limits the number of prototypes that can realistically be involved in a development process, engineers must, at a certain point, move forward with an imperfect design. With 3D printing, that end point is much further off on the horizon.
- Faster overall production speeds: The time that 3D printing can save in the design and prototyping processes means overall time-to-market is reduced. This equates to bottom line benefits for you as well as your customers.
- More design flexibility: In scenarios where 3D printing will be used for short-run production, the possibilities of product design are greatly expanded. Whereas traditional manufacturing methods have limitations in the geometries, thicknesses, and other physical aspects that can be designed and created, thanks to the realities of each respective process the additive 3D printing process offers far fewer restrictions. This allows entrepreneurs and innovators to create products that would have been difficult, or even impossible, to produce via traditional methods.
- Reduced waste: As an additive manufacturing process, 3D printing uses only the material required to create a part (with the exception of supports that may be removed for certain types of designs). This is in contrast to other processes, where material is removed from the raw base in order to produce the final shape. With these processes, this material must be disposed of, not to mention paid for initially, resulting in higher costs and facility waste.
- Mobility: 3D printers offer vastly improved portability over traditional manufacturing methods (which often can’t be accomplished outside of a traditional facility). 3D printers can be brought on boats, into remote environments, even into space — offering fast production of needed parts when they may not have otherwise been available.
The Future of 3D Manufacturing
The above benefits have major implications for where 3D printing can take us in the future.
The mobility aspect means replacement parts can now be created on extended missions (such as military missions or space exploration), instead of needing to be supplied in advance. This has a huge impact on the potential duration of these types of projects.
In addition, the speed, low cost and versatility of 3D printing drive access and innovation, meaning more creators are able to make their visions a reality, at lower costs.
Finally, the reduced waste created by 3D printing means a more environmentally friendly process overall, which over the long run can make a big difference in sustainability.
With all of these benefits and advantages in mind, we may one day not be asking “How has 3D printing changed manufacturing?” but rather “How has 3D printing changed the world?”