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Machine Shop Tips My View on 3D Printing

It seems like every day, at one point or another, I encounter something written about 3D Printing. It’s getting so much publicity it seems to be the rock star of manufacturing. 3D Printing is touching every industry, and many have called it the global game changer.

What is it? 3D Printing is also known as additive manufacturing. It’s a process where you connect, or fuse, materials together to make a three dimensional object. It’s used to make everything from medical implants, including teeth, to aircraft components. It’s even invaded the food industry with the printing of edible products. I’ve spent a lot of time reading 3D Printing literature and it just seems to skim the surface of the what’s going on. It’s very hard to tune out what I call the noise, or hype, of of 3D Printing.

My company’s in the metal manufacturing area so I’ll confine my comments to that. I can imagine one day in the future that an engineer at some famous tablet or cell phone company will finish the design of their company’s latest device. Confident that the product is ready to manufacture, the engineer will press a button, and somewhere on the planet, an entire manufacturing cell of 3D Printers will begin to build the new device. The printers will print everything, delivering a finished product that was never touched by a human hand. This will likely happen in many industries, and will dramatically affect how these industries do business. Wow! Now that will be a game changer!

I believe this will happen, but will it happen tomorrow? No. Here are some of the reasons why I don’t think it will happen that quickly.

  • Many 3D printed materials are not currently used by mainstream manufacturing. These materials make it easier to make the 3D part, but they’ll need to be tested before they can enter mainstream manufacturing. Testing is vital as we don’t know the longevity and durability of the currently available 3D Printing raw materials over the long run.
  • Materials used in 3D Printing (including metals) are expensive and proprietary to the 3D Printer manufacturers. You cannot buy them locally as they’re only available through the channels dictated by the 3D Printer manufacturers. Also, the bigger the part, the more expensive it will be to 3D Print, which is not cost-effective for large manufacturing runs.
  • Materials for 3D Printing of metal components usually come in the form of fine dust. All metals, however, oxidize (or rust) and because metal dust has more surface area than a metal bar it will oxidize faster. To prevent this we will need to come up with specialized shipping containers that will prevent the dust from oxidizing.
  • The entire manufacturing industry today is tailored to what we call “subtractive manufacturing”. This involves taking a piece of material and machining away, or subtracting material, to create the final part. This is how it’s been done for many years, with lots of money and infrastructure invested in this method. To write this off overnight is not going to happen. You can compare this to what’s currently happening in the automotive industry with electric cars. Electric cars have now been around for many years, but adoption has been slow. Why? The main reason is because current transportation infrastructure couldn’t support only electric.

Of course there are many other reasons for the slow adoption of 3D Printing and I invite you discuss them with me. I believe we need to keep 3D Printing on our radar, as it’s coming…just not tomorrow. We each need to do our part to evaluate how it will impact our industry and how we can benefit from this up and coming technology. What are your thoughts on 3D Printing? How will it impact, or benefit your industry?