Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?

Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?

Manufacturing products with the touch of a button using 3D printing.

As of 2021, the global 3D printing market is worth US$15.10 billion and is expected to grow to US$83.90 million by 2029. One of the biggest reasons behind this projected growth is the wide variety of possibilities this technology offers to the manufacturing industry. According to a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 51% of U.S. manufacturers are using 3D printing technology for prototyping and producing finished products. 

Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of 3D printing in the manufacturing space. Could it potentially replace traditional means of production? 

Advantages of 3D printing in production 

Quick turnaround time 

Today, one of the most important things you can do to make your product sell is to ensure it gets to the shelves quickly. To do so, the manufacturer must get a final product prototype ready and check it for defects as soon as possible. 3D printing speeds up that process. This, in turn, allows modifications and changes to be made faster. 

Cuts down production costs

Another significant benefit of 3D printing is that it is cheaper than traditional production methods. This is because, unlike traditional manufacturing where different people are required to handle parts of the production process, you only need a single operator to work on a 3D printing machine. The rest is automated. 

Less resource intensive

The 3D printing process is known as additive manufacturing. In this type of production, the raw material is added layer by layer. In contrast, traditional manufacturing is called subtractive manufacturing, where the material is gradually removed for the final product. When comparing the two, 3D printing creates lesser material waste since only the required amount of material is used. Moreover, the reduction in resources used also makes the process environmentally friendly.

Makes customization possible

3D printing allows companies to make their products stand out by facilitating mass customization. Since 3D printing does not require any specific tools, 

only the digital files of the product need to be changed to create products that fit the customer’s needs.

Disadvantages of 3D printing

Limited materials 

One of the biggest challenges of 3D printing is that, at the current stage of technological development, there is a limit to the materials that can be used in 3D printers. Only some variety of plastics and metals can be used in 3D printing. The most common one is plastic, which sometimes may not be strong enough for specific products. Another factor limiting the scope of 3D printing is that none of these materials is food safe, meaning you can’t eat using 3D-printed cutlery or dishes. 

Post-production efforts 

The products created via 3D printing require further cleaning and smoothening to get the desired finish. Typical post-processing efforts include removing chemical soak and rinse, air or heat drying and assembling the products. Post-processing tends to be expensive, mainly if done by hand, and can cost anywhere between US$25,000 to US$50,000.

Set up costs 

While the production of goods using 3D printing might be cheaper, the cost of setting up the 3D printer in the first place can create a significant dent in the manufacturer’s wallet. A standard industrial 3D printer costs over US$80,000, which, added to the regular maintenance costs, can hike up the price of 3D printing.   

Requires re-learning

Finally, using 3D printing in manufacturing requires a complete upheaval of the current production process. Designers must keep 3D printing and its possibilities and limitations 

in mind right from when they first ideate the product. Engineers need to learn the mechanics of a 3D printer to support the production process. It also reduces the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector since this form of production isn’t quite as labor-intensive.

So, is 3D printing viable for manufacturing?

When we weigh the pros and cons of 3D printing, it is safe to say that—at least for now—the traditional manufacturing process will stay. Much money has been invested in making the present systems run smoothly and naturally. It would take a long time to make similar investments and create the same kind of smooth-running systems for 3D printing. While 3D printing might eventually take over manufacturing, we should probably see it as a tool to expand the scope of manufacturing rather than as a disruptive technology for now.

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Header image courtesy of Freepik

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