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Will 3D printing really change the course of global manufacturing?

By Jesus David Cano Romano
May 13, 2015
3D printing

Although the concept of 3D printing was invented in the mid 80’s, most of the significant advances have been within the last decade. With current 3D technology, you are able to make guns, food, and even organs with a 3D printer. Dubbed as the next manufacturing evolution, many experts forecast 3D printing upsetting the current manufacturing market, even with legendary Wall Street Investor Warren Buffet describing 3D printing as ‘a real threat’. Regardless of its advancements, 3D printing has still yet to breach into the mainstream market. As speculation of an imminent manufacturing revolution grows, is 3D printing really going to completely distort the manufacturing market? Currently the majority of commercial use for 3D printers is within prototyping for manufacturing such as the 3D prototyping service that we offer here at China2West, which allows us the capability to print prototypes of up to 30cm cubed with a same day service. This can be used as a standalone service or to aid our engineers in general design work, DFM (design for manufacture) and fault finding. The Chinese government realizes the importance of 3D printing, demonstrated by how it is planning to distribute one-3d printer to each school in order to educate and fully integrate China into 3D printing.

With websites such as Thingiverse, which offer over 100,000 free blueprints of objects that you can print on your 3D printer, ranging from a Toyota 4 cylinder engine to a crossbow, the opportunities and the technology is relatively accessible with a middle of the range 3D printer, which will cost you around $2000. In theory, when the consumer needs a specific good, rather than thinking where to go and buy the good, it will be possible to simply download the blueprint and make the item. As a result, people’s garages can evolve into micro-production hubs with on demand production. The rise of these micro-factories has a definite advantage over the more traditional manufacturing units, removing all shipping costs and large factor overheads. As the President of the United States, Barack Obama remarked how 3D printing ‘has the potential to revolutionize the way in which we make almost anything’. So what are the factors that are currently blocking 3D printing from becoming truly able to change the course of global manufacturing?

One of the major factors holding 3D printing back is the cost of the materials and the actual material itself. Filament, which is the substance that is required to use the 3D printers costs USD$50 for a 1kg reel. Although this is arguably cheap given the possibility of full customization of the good, practical every day goods remain cheaper within traditional methods of production. In addition, 3D printing technology only really allows the production of plastic goods. As a result, commercial use of 3D printing machines revolves around only a few industries including aerospace and movie set design. While the majority of 3D product within the consumer markets are novelty ornaments and jewelry, most of the household items are made with more than one material, with the majority being metal and plastic, which cannot be currently be made together from their melting temperatures. This therefore limits the practical uses of 3D printing products. However, the advanced uses of 3D printing show the endless possibilities of materials that can be used, as demonstrated by medical research and development, with the creation of working organs and body parts. The restriction to plastics for the majority of the market constricts the potential use of 3D printing. With the advancement of technology, other materials will become available for the consumer market that will be key to allow 3D printing to be a dominant part of manufacturing.

Secondly, the initial price of the printer itself is a factor, with prices ranging from USD$600 to over USD$15,000. The price and the ability of these printers vary massively. However, with the current technology it is difficult to be able to justify the initial investment, as the potential savings are not large enough to justify the initial cost. In only 10 years, 3D printers have gone from being able to print simplistic objects to fully functioning cars. As the technology increases, the complexities of what consumers are able to produce increases. 3D printing therefore has the opportunity to completely undercut current manufactures within the near future.

3D printing truly has the potential to completely revolutionize the manufacturing industry, creating a market for on demand consumption. 3D printing is not far off this dream, however, it will only happen when it is as cheap or cheaper to produce goods via 3D printing than traditional production methods. With all new technologies, high costs are present within the early stages of development. With the high level of investment and innovation within the 3D industry, which we have already seen, it will not be long until the technology accessibility allows 3D printing to truly revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.