3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) has already been adopted by many big names to replace their current prototyping methods and even to be used as part of the manufacturing process. With an increasing popularity that is already spreading into the consumer market, additive manufacturing is certainly one of the technologies to follow in the 21st century. But what are the real benefits of 3D printing?
As discussed in the first post of this series, 3D printing is increasingly being used by large companies such as Converse or Alessi to replace some of their traditional manufacturing methods with cost savings of up to 70%. This is achieved through lower shipping and packaging costs related to overseas parts suppliers, less human resource involved and cheaper and sometimes more reliable raw materials.
Although currently 3D home-printed objects are not necessarily cheaper than their mass-manufactured counter parts, printing your own object a priceless experience for many (at least until its novelty wears off). 3D printed objects are only expected to get cheaper with improved additive manufacturing techniques, cheaper consumables, main stream adoption and self-replicating practices.
The speed of 3D printing compared to traditional methods is similar to comparing a sports car’s top speed to a horse cart’s. They both take you where you want to go but the journey time differs considerably. With industrial 3D printers being able to ‘manufacture’ most objects in a matter of hours, the classical manufacturing methods, taking up to several days or even weeks (from prototype to end product), are slowly becoming obsolete.
This leads to massive cost savings and to an on-demand manufacturingmodel. Why should you have warehouses filled up with stocks of your products if you can create them according to demand? Even if this model might not work with the big offline manufacturers due to their dependence on offline retailers that usually buy in bulk, it can prove extremely efficient for an online business.
Manufacturing metal and plastic objects in particular is usually a wasteful process with chunky parts and a lot of surplus material. For some aircraft makers, up to 90% of the material is being cut away and no longer useful. Making a similar object using additive manufacturing not only uses less energy but also reduces waste to a minimum. And sometimes, the finished 3D printed product can be up to 60% lighter compared to the machined part but still as sturdy according to the Economist. Significant cost savings can be achieved in this way and less waste also means a lower impact on the environment.
Think about 3D printing ascake baking. You can make a cake by whisking some cake mix, pouring it in an oven tray and baking everything. The result may taste amazing but it can have unwanted air bubbles inside, different thickness and all nuts or fruits could be grouped to one side. However, if you could assemble the cake layer by layer similar to additive manufacturing, you could achieve perfection through a full control of where each layer is going and how it fits with the rest.
Avoiding most of the mass manufacturing faults does not only make better products but it also extends their life as they will break less often. This is not necessarily a great benefit for manufacturers who need the product life cycle to be profitable, but it is certainly a major benefit for the end consumer.
With more people getting access to 3D printing, it may not be long until we will all have our own multi-purpose contraption (with additive manufacturing being only one of the many functionalities) capable of creating the products we need, when we need them. This can seriously shake up the current consumerism culture built on the contemporary industrial supply chain; nevertheless, it remains to be seen if this is only an ideology or a possible transitional period in human evolution.
Less waste compared to traditional manufacturing methods is not only a cost saving feature of 3D printing but also a possible eco-friendly attribute. Add to this the multi-purpose characteristic of a 3D printer (can build different objects without the need of using specialised machines for each part) and their digital ecosystem (all 3D models are transmitted electronically so in theory they can be printed out where they are needed, minimising therefore transport costs) and you get a sustainable manufacturing process. Integrating additive manufacturing with more classic production methods – as is the case with 3D printed textiles in the clothing industry – adds another layer (excuse the pun) to the sustainability case.
New shapes and structures
Traditional manufacturing methods rely on moulds and cutting technologies to produce a finite number of shapes and structures, with more complex hollow ones having to be created from several parts and assembled together. But 3D printing changes this altogether – the 3D printer’s nozzle can build an infinite number of complex figures, being limited only by human imagination. This method gives them more durability and higher structural integrity. From medical implants that resemble bone to aerodynamic parts for the space industry and from unique-shaped furniture to 3D printed jewellery, the opportunities are endless.
New combinations of materials
Mixing different raw materials is not always possible with mass-manufacturing methods due to the sometimes high costs involved and to their physical & chemical properties that make them difficult to combine through traditional methods. 3D printing has removed many of these boundaries not only because of the initial dependency on plastic (being one of the few raw materials that melt at lower temperatures) but also because of a continuous innovation fed by enthusiasts believing that additive manufacturing’s potential has not been reached yet. As a result, many companies now offer tens of different materials with different finishes giving the look and feel of metal, ceramics or glass with various strengths and temperature resistance.
New business models
With 3D printing gaining popularity fast, entrepreneurs have not lost any opportunity to get their foot into an industry deemed by many as potentially very lucrative. This is how 3D printing ‘shops’ were born. Imagine going shopping in a supermarket where you decide how your products will look and feel, and where everything can be personalised to fit your demanding tastes.
These fab(rication) shops are all benefiting from a manufacturing model made possible by 3D-printing: on-demand manufacturing. Two of these stores that target both business and individual customers are Shapeways and Sculpteo. In both of them you upload your 3D models or get access to their community for 3D modelling support, then you choose the materials and colours desired and then you wait for the finished product to be delivered to you. With a multitude of pre-created 3D models already available to use, there will always be something to spark your interest.
With so many obvious and potential benefits for 3D printing there is no surprise that this technology is making its way through a varied number of industries with both life-saving applications and personal entertainment uses. What would you use 3D printing for in your day-to-day life? Please leave your comments in the box below.
This post is part of the 3D Printing series.