3D printing is the process of building physical objects using a computer. The model for the object is programmed into the computer and using the 3D printer, the computer builds the object. Objects are built by adding layer upon layer of a molten polymer resin that hardens into the desired structure. 3D printing is very useful when creating detailed objects that have internal parts, hollow walls, intricate geometric shapes and so on.
3D printing is used to create prototypes of parts, or small-scale manufacturing of various products including jewelry, car parts, household objects, propeller parts and more. When compared to more traditional methods of manufacturing these items, 3D printing is a lot more detailed.
The advantages of 3D printing
The main advantages of using 3D printing include:
- Much lower start-up cost.
- No need for separate manufacturing tools like cutters and molds.
- Less waste material as there is no cutting and trimming involved.
- Ideal for customized one-off parts.
- Objects are highly detailed and intricate.
- Objects with several internal parts can be created.
However, there are a few disadvantages of 3D printing as well:
- Only small amounts of an item can be created at a time.
- The process takes longer than more traditional methods.
- There are limitations on the types of materials that can be used in the processes.
- Materials used are not very strong which limits the types of items the tech can be used to create.
Is 3D printing commercially viable for more mainstream use?
Right now, this is how the technology works:
A 3D image of the object to be made is programmed into the computer. The computer uses the model to build the object using a 3D printer. 3D printers work by adding one layer of material at a time to build up the 3D structure. The advantage of this type of method is that the walls of the object can be built partially, internal parts can be incorporated into the structure, and then the rest of the walls can be built to encase the internal parts. This can all happen simultaneously.
The layers of the building material have to be in molten form to be able to be structured as required. Gradually, the material hardens to form a solid structure. Because the materials need to be molten, some amount of heating is required during the 3D printing process. Polymer resins need a much lower temperature to melt which is why they are preferred over metals.
However, polymer resins are not the most durable of materials, so are not ideal for objects that need to withstand a lot of wear and tear. Also, because of the layer by layer process of building items, 3D printing takes a bit longer than injection mold or other methods of manufacturing objects. The time involved limits the application of 3D printing for wide-scale manufacturing.
3D metal printing is already in existence and is used in many industries. However, melting metals to get them at the right consistency for 3D printing uses very high temperatures. The need for high temperature makes 3D metal printing impractical to be used in several industries and environments.
So, where does that leave us?
Is 3D printing viable for commercial use? The answer is both yes and no. There are a few industries that greatly benefit from 3D printing which makes it worth using the method. But, there are also those industries that simply do not see a good return on investment if they use 3D printing in their processes.
Here are some industries where 3D printing is commercially viable:
Architecture: 3D printing is very useful in architecture when creating scaled models of buildings. 3D models of individual buildings can be built to show the architect’s vision when making a pitch or when showing the construction crew what to do.
Dentistry: Dentistry is another area where 3D printing has wide-scale applications and has been in use for a while now. Crowns, dentures, and other types of dental prosthetics are all custom-created using digital models of the patients’ mouths and 3D printing.
Prosthetic medicine: 3D printing is also extremely useful in making limb prosthetics. Arms and legs that have to be custom-made to suit each patient can easily be made using 3D printing.
Customized car parts: Under normal circumstances, if a car requires a single part, the manufacturers have to be informed, and it takes time for the part to reach. Using 3D printing, car mechanics can build the parts in their workshops and use it for car repairs as and when necessary.
Customized manufacturing: All types of small-scale manufacturing industries can use 3D printing in a commercially viable manner. Where there is a need for intricate details in design but no need for mass production, 3D printing becomes an excellent tool.
And here are some industries that will need to wait a little longer for the technology:
Large-scale manufacturing of plastic items: 3D printing is not yet at the level where it can be used for large-scale production of plastic items. The time required makes it a commercially non-viable option in this sector.
Large-scale manufacturing of metal objects: As mentioned earlier, 3D metal printing is not the most practical method of manufacturing metal objects. While the method can be used in the small-scale manufacture of metal items, it is not a good idea for mass production.
3D printing can be very convenient, offer an increased level of detail, and generate a lot less waste. For certain industries, using 3D printing is not just practical but also very cost-effective. However, 3D printing still has its limitations in some industries, and it is not yet commercially viable for their use.
In the future, there is a good chance that new technologies will help to eliminate the limitation of 3D printing. The technology is developing at a fast rate, and it is possible that in the next two or three years, more industries will be enjoying the benefits of 3D printing.