Mechanics and engineers have been using 3-D printing for several years. Prototypes are printed during the Research and Design (R&D) phase as it is cheaper to print one prototype than have to pay to manufacture several only to find out that specifications may be slightly off. Today more than 20% of goods printed by a 3-D printer are not prototypes, but actual products. And it’s estimated that by 2020, this will rise to 50%.1
The process of using 3-D printing in the manufacturing industry is known as “additive” manufacturing whereby the manual construction of a prototype is known as “subtractive” manufacturing. This is because utilizing software to print a prototype saves a lot of retooling costs that would otherwise eat up a large portion of the R&D budget. 3-D printing also saves time and raw materials since the printer is more precise and more efficient than cutting, molding, soldering, etc. by hand.
Not only does 3-D lower costs, but it also lowers risk associated with developing a new product. Before, a manufacturer would have manufacture and sell hundreds and even thousands of a new product just to recoup the R&D and manufacturing costs. With 3-D printing, the break-even point is lowered substantially. This is good for consumers as well as more unique products may be brought to market for consumption.
Another cost savings of 3-D printing is the reduction of scrap waste. During the normal manufacturing process, sheets or coils of steel may be used and the edges are considered scrap after the shape of the product has been cut out of the sheet/coal. With 3-D printing, you hit a “print” button, much like a typical ink-filled printer we use today at home. However, there is no scrap because the 3-D printer prints in layers, and only uses the raw materials necessary to make the object.
This article mainly discussed the 3-D printing of airplane parts, but there’s no telling how far this new technology will take other industries as well.
The world of 3-D printing is pretty amazing. I was pretty impressed with the concept and found that it has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. Hobbyists such as jewelry makers can utilize a 3-D printer to print their designs. What was once a hobby can perhaps turn into a small business. And an architect at MIT is experimenting with the possibility of printing buildings! In her experiment, the 3-D printer is able to print layers of concrete for the building construction.
Furthermore, human organs have even been printed with a 3-D printer!2 Ten years ago, a young boy was given a printed bladder. The bladder was printed using a combination of synthetic, biomaterials and the boy’s own cells. The boy would go barely go outside for recess and had been on dialysis for ten years went to become captain of his high school wrestling team and is now majoring in Communications at the University of Connecticut. His quality of life improved drastically due to 3-D printing. Other 3-D organs are currently undergoing testing before being approved for transplant.
In summary, I think the possibilities are endless. It’s hard to believe that this technology has actually been around in manufacturing for at least ten years, but it’s not hard to see that it is taking off rapidly (and with great success) in many fields. It’ll be exciting to see what comes next! Which industries do you think 3-D printing may have the most impact on?