There is little doubt that 3D printing is big news in the manufacturing industry and receives a lot of coverage in the press, so we'll take a look at its origins and ask, can it take over from more traditional manufacturing methods?
Initially 3D printing was used to create prototypes to help companies speed up the product development phase of projects, but it is increasingly being employed to produce workable parts for many industries including the medical, dental, aerospace and automotive sectors.
The process first emerged in the late 1980s with so-called rapid prototyping technologies.
By being able to produce prototypes quickly and easily with multiple customised parts, companies found themselves saving time and money at the beginning of the manufacturing process.
The quality of prototypes produced using 3D printing techniques meant that companies felt more confident about beginning the manufacturing process.
In 1986, Charles Hull secured the first patent for a 3D printer or stereolithography apparatus (SLA). Mr Hull was the co-founder of 3D Systems Corporation, which remains one of the biggest players in the market today. In 1987, the company introduced the SLA-1 to the world, which was the first 3D printer designed for commercial use.
The early nineties saw many other companies come onto the market with similar products using slightly different printing techniques. The only remaining companies still operating in this sector are 3D Systems, EOS and Stratsys.
In 2000, MCP technologies came up with an additive manufacturing process named Selective Laser Melting that involved using a laser beam to create metal parts by fusing powders together.
Later in 2007, 3D systems developed the first commercial printer for under $10,000 (£6,363), and then followed a split in the market between high-end 3D printing for creating expensive, complex parts and those used to help with the development of concepts and prototypes.
Pros of 3D printing
Traditional manufacturing works by taking a material such as metal, glass or plastic and reducing and manipulating it into a solid object. This requires expensive tools and can be a very wasteful process, as often much of the original raw material is thrown away during the manufacture of the product.
3D printing differs as it involves the process of creating something by adding layers. It is often referred to as additive manufacturing. Three dimensional objects are created from a digital file, so there is no waste.
Another noted benefit of 3D printing is its ability to produce customised goods quickly and relatively cheaply. Customisation is increasingly important, as consumers and businesses want to personalise and set their products and goods apart. In an industrial environment, components may need to be marked with instructions, or codes to differentiate parts.
3D printing puts the power in the hands of the creator and that means that it is easier to generate customised products. The same build chamber can be used to produce multiple products that are identical apart from their customised components without adding the processing costs associated with more traditional techniques.
Because the product is created direct from the printer, both labour time and therefore costs can be dramatically reduced. This is important in a competitive environment where products have to be delivered to tight time schedules and budgets.
Traditional mass production techniques involve stockpiling components and parts, which can be expensive to produce, ship and house.
Employing people to manage these processes can be expensive and finding warehouse space to hold goods and transporting them is costly, not to mention damaging to the environment.
With 3D printing, manufacturers can follow the principals of lean manufacturing by cutting out waste generated by transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production and defects.
Improved complexity is another advantage of 3D printing, as components can be produced in a digital environment and printed via sophisticated machines in a way that they could not be before.
Complex components can be produced to be stronger and lighter than they were using more traditional manufacturing techniques, and this is proving popular in industries such as the aerospace sector. Weight is of particular importance to the aviation industry as planes made with lighter components will weigh less overall and that means they consume a smaller amount of fuel, and do not produce as much C02 emissions.
3D printing provides companies with an environmental way to produce goods as the process uses much less material and therefore creates minimal waste, mitigating the need for expensive recycling processes. The fact that components can be made both lighter and stronger means they are more eco-friendly because their impact is less, as in the example of planes.
Cons of the process
While there are many tangible and obvious advantages to 3D printing, there are many limitations to the process too.
The first and most obvious one is the fact that as a technology it is still very much in its infancy. In time, it may well address limitations such as the type of material that can be produced in a 3D environment, or it may be that it sits alongside other manufacturing techniques.
Print speed is another potential limitation and one that could be improved over time, but means that the process is not as timely as it might be. Other computer-based manufacturing techniques may sometimes be preferable if time is a vital factor.
Another potential disadvantage of 3D printing techniques is that they are not always easy to master, and in-depth training is often required to manage these complex machines. This can of course be costly to manufacturers and these costs may end up being absorbed by the consumer.
Because objects can be produced without tools, there is also the possibility that operators will produce too many components without considering the waste.
3D printing is not going to disappear any time soon, but it is unlikely to replace all other manufacturing methods. Instead the future will no doubt see technology being increasingly used in the production of goods and 3D printing will be a part of that.