You would be hard pressed to find someone who has not heard of 3D printing in the last few years. The number of 3D printers sold to businesses, universities, and even private owners has grown exponentially, and there are no signs that this growth will slow any time soon. With 3D printing becoming more prevalent in the modern world each year, industry and manufacturing as we know it are on the brink of a technological revolution.
A Brief History
3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing, is actually older than most people realize; the first working prototype of a machine capable of printing a 3D object was created in 1981. Back then, 3D printing was seen as a proof of concept experiment, and not a viable manufacturing system. The quality of the finished product was low, and the time it took to complete a print was staggering.
Thirty-five years later, additive manufacturing is in its prime. Costs and print time have been reduced dramatically, while the finished products are, in some cases, on par and surpassing current manufacturing quality. But what does this mean for the future of industry?
Mass Production Scale
One of the greatest challenges with 3D printing is moving from single unit systems to mass production assembly lines. While the technology behind 3D printing has led to larger scale printers with greater output rates, it seems unlikely that additive manufacturing will replace current methods. For example, 3D printers often use plastics as media for creating objects; the printer may be getting faster, but is still not even close the production rate and low-cost of injection molding. That’s not to say that 3D printing can’t change industry though; inexpensive prototyping can be conducted faster than ever with the use of 3D printing and CAD software. This means that companies can design and test new products faster, which can then be moved to mass production. So while we may not see factory floors made entirely of 3D printers, some specific industries are planning to move to large-scale 3D printing operations. The most prominent of these industries is healthcare, specifically in the realm of prosthetics.
Limb replacement in healthcare has always struggled to balance cost with personalized care. Prosthetics can only be made inexpensively when done in mass production, but the needs of patients are found on a case-by-case basis. Unlike some items, a limb is not “one size fits all” and personalized care means a more expensive device. 3D printing, however, has the potential to change that. With a printer, patient-specific devices can be printed at a fraction of the cost with virtually no changes to the necessary machinery. With 3D printing, cost-effective care with prosthetics has become available to more people than ever before.
3D Printing in the Home
Moving down from the mass production scale, 3D printing has opened up to opportunity for an entirely new form of manufacturing: Personal Manufacturing. The cost of a 3D printer has fallen since additive manufacturing became popular, which means that more people can own their own printer. This has led to a revolution in creativity for both professional designers and amateurs alike. New models can be created and tested from home. Replacement parts can be printed in hours instead of waiting for days. Personalization in manufacturing has grown to the point that the only limit to what can be created is the maker’s imagination. Design, prototyping, and production are no longer limited to large companies, but can now be done on the individual scale.
The Future of Manufacturing
While it is difficult to predict exactly how 3D printing will shape manufacturing in the coming years, we can be certain that the effects will be great. Who knows what the next big breakthrough will be? Already we have seen advances made through additive manufacturing in various fields and 3D printing is allowing for more innovators than ever to create tomorrow’s technology. It is these innovators that have the power to bring manufacturing into the future.