In the world of manufacturing, there is no doubt that 3D printing is very much in vogue. Practically every tech and manufacturing blog has had a story on 3D printing in the past couple of years, and a huge variety of companies now have their own 3D printers including traditional manufacturers, independent shop owners, and artists. Even some public libraries have purchased 3D printers in order to give the public the ability to learn about this technology. You may also come across stores or kiosks in malls and shopping centers where store owners usually sell toys and figurines, often taken from the likeness of the customer.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons behind the surge in popularity of this new technology. If developed in the right way, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize how we manufacture and sell goods. But with all of the claims that 3D printing is a “manufacturing game-changer,” it’s important that we keep our expectations realistic.
The Good in 3D Printing
Faster Production Cycles
With 3D printing, many of the middle steps in manufacturing process become unnecessary or redundant. Eventually, manufacturing an item could be as simple as entering in a program on your home 3D printer, inserting the raw materials, and assembling your parts when they are finished.
Not only will this make it easier to acquire things as you need them, it will also significantly improve the likelihood that you will have access to whatever you will need, even in remote locations. For example, NASA is currently exploring options in outfitting astronauts with 3D printers that can be used in space. This will allow them to quickly produce a part or tool as they need it, which will ultimately mean that astronauts will have to bring fewer items with them on expeditions.
This also has huge implications for those working in remote areas of the world. Imagine you are a doctor working with a child in Papua New Guinea who has lost her leg. The child may have been getting by with crutches or a wooden limb, but with a 3D printer, you will be able to print out an inexpensive but highly more effective prosthetic limb for her. With the printer established in this location, you will then be able to go on printing many medical devices as you need them for the people you treat on that island.
The Return of American Manufacturing and Innovation
If more people are printing goods in their own homes, countries like China and India will lose their edge as low cost options for American manufacturers. This will likely mean that many of the core processes of manufacturing that will remain will be in-sourced domestic locations.
This will likely give many manufacturers as well as designers and inventors renewed opportunities for innovation. With greater access to materials, and with quicker turn-around on the production of goods, there will be less downtime in the conception of new products. This will give designers and inventors more freedom to experiment with designs and models, and to see the fruits of their labors more quickly.
In many instances, the manufacturing process requires that the manufacturer start with a quantity of a material that is larger than the finished product. The product will be carved or molded from that material, leaving lots of excess material behind. Though there are many strategies for repurposing excess materials in these kinds of situations, it is better to prevent waste than to repurpose it. Because the majority of 3D printing involves the layering of materials, you end up with far less material, if any, to trim away when your object has been printed.
There will also be fewer materials to ship to the manufacturing location. This will prevent accumulation of many of the environmental costs associated with the production of material goods as fewer materials will need to be manufactured in separate locations.
More Options in New Kinds of Objects
With greater freedom in access to materials and more room to experiment with design, manufacturers will have the freedom to experiment with structures and materials that were not previously feasible with the given constraints of older manufacturing technologies. For example, many 3D printed objects on the market today use very thin layers of material, and rely on structures that are mathematically difficult to engineer when using other manufacturing methods. With these obstacles removed, manufacturers will be able to investigate the pros and cons of manufacturing in these ways with more freedom.
In addition, 3D manufacturing enables engineers to design more easily customizable products. This has some fascinating implications for the medical device industry. While some look forward to a day where we will be able to quickly manufacture organ transplants, it would be very exciting simply to see the manufacture of more traditional medical technologies. Right now there are some people who cannot use certain medical devices due to size limitations. For example, the Intrauterine Device might not be available to women with particularly small or large uteruses, or who have not had a baby before. Eventually, the improved customization of manufacturing devices might allow more women to use this highly effective method of birth control.
Disadvantages to the 3D Printing Craze
As with any technology that seems to garner a lot of attention all at once, there is reason to be skeptical of the claims that 3D printing will bring about a manufacturing revolution. Here are just a few reasons that 3D printing might not produce the sudden, rapid industry change than many have predicted.
Feasibility of Use in the Real World
Certainly, if you had a 3D printer in your home, office, or medical mission in the mountains of Ecuador, it would seem that you should face far fewer obstacles in providing important or life-saving devices more quickly and at lower cost. However, it remains to be seen how feasible it will be to actually transport and install 3D printers in all of these locations. For the time being, a 3D printer and its materials can still be quite expensive, and operating one requires some training and technical ability. The CAD software that is most frequently used to design models for printing requires a good level of technical literacy, practice, and experience before a user will be able to print a useful product.
In addition, users of 3D printers will still need to find a way to access the printing material, and while it may eventually be cheaper than purchasing a finished product, for the time being this may still present an obstacle for those trying to install 3D printers in homes and remote locations.
Further, while 3D printing can produce objects more quickly and cheaply than other manufacturing processes, this is still a relative scale. In order to produce one item virtually from start to finish, the printing process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days and can cost thousands of dollars depending on the materials used. Some have noted that as a result, it doesn’t really make sense financially to print anything larger than a baseball, especially on a mass scale.
Lack of Options in Materials and Structural Integrity
Most 3D products made today are composed of a plastic material. Indeed, plastic presents the most options and variability in the manufacturing process and can be used to produce a wide variety of objects. It has also thus far been the easiest material to use to print. Because plastic is not really a suitable material for many objects, we may for the time being be limited on the kinds of objects we can print, which may be limiting in some of the applications that had been envisioned for the 3D printing market. There also may be an increase in cheap replacement products for items that should not be made from plastic.
In addition, though 3D printing may allow designers to model some structurally interesting objects, printed objects tend to have poor structural integrity and most are not yet suitable for projects that require great strength, though advances have been made in printing concrete houses.
Loss of Manufacturing Jobs
With more manufacturing occurring in the home or office, or in single factory locations rather than many, there will likely be a loss of associated manufacturing jobs as positions become redundant. While this tends to be true anytime a new technology is introduced into the manufacturing world, it always causes some alarm as we cannot know in advance the true extent to which these kinds of alternative technologies might put people out of work.
Lack of Protection for Copyrighted or Dangerous Items
With 3D printing, anyone who has the skills to develop a model and gain access to a 3D printer will also have access to that item itself. It is already possible to print out a semi-functional gun using a 3D printer, thereby bypassing the normal background check process that a gun owner must undergo.
Similarly, the owner of a 3D printer might eventually be able to print out an item that is very similar or identical to a copyrighted item. Though this would also be illegal, they could even begin to sell these knock off items. This will make many designers extremely disinclined to release their models, and may lead to some fairly extreme patent laws and enforcement measures.
An Overabundance of Unnecessary Items
If you have paid any attention to 3D printing in the news, you will have likely noticed that the majority of pictures of 3D printing demonstrate the production of what are effectively toys. Because of the limitations in scope and scale for most 3D printers, there is only a small range of items that can currently be produced. Unless we make some significant advances in our ability to print with other materials, we will not really be able to print much more complicated objects than these toys and accessories.
Though 3D printers may mean that many factories will be able to shut down parts of their operations and remove shipping steps, 3D printing still requires a large amount of energy. Because the 3D printing process is quite slow, the printers need to be on and running for hours or days at a time. This can represent a significant energy drain, particularly for a larger printer running a more complex task. This will eventually mean that much of the energy consumption of the manufacturing process is passed off to the consumers and small manufacturers running printers from their homes and offices.
Thoughts on the Drawbacks of 3D Printing
All of the above-listed drawbacks to 3D printing are popular topics in the debate on its efficacy as a new technology. However, it seems that there are a few things that we can safely say about the debate on 3D printing:
- Many of the concerns expressed by many people, including those listed here, will likely disappear or at least become much smaller issues as the technology becomes more widely adopted. Many of these problems are simply problems that arise when a technology is new and the kinks have not yet been worked out. However, some propose that we will never overcome the fact that 3D printing is costly and that its applications are limited.
- Lots of these concerns are more like inconveniences than impossibilities. For example, though it might not now be convenient to get a 3D printer to a remote location, it is strictly speaking possible to do so, and once it is at that location and a regular supply chain has been put in place, it will no longer be so costly or difficult to manufacture further items as needed.
- In regards to the concerns over loss of copyright protection, in many cases there is no greater risk to copyright holders than there was before the advent of 3D printers. There are many knock offs on the market for many types of goods, and on the more legally sound side of things, it is not uncommon for manufacturers to copy successful ideas. For example, after the iPad was introduced, many tablets hit the market from many manufacturers. In practice, 3D printing will probably only produce as much idea theft and copyright infringement as occurred before.
- As 3D printing becomes more accessible in the home and office, the issue of excessive energy consumption of manufacturing will increasingly be an issue for the home and business owner. However, as alternative energies become more realistic possibilities, we may be able to alleviate much of this financial and ecological burden.