Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »
Is 3D Printing Really A Miracle?
July 9th, 2014 by Jeff Rowe
Is 3D printing truly the miracle it’s purported to be?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself numerous times, especially when I see yet another announcement from a hardware or software vendor or service provider that is often hype and little else. A lot of companies (and their marketing/PR/communications engines) count on the fact that just about anything that states or implies “3D printing” is going to automatically generate “a buzz” of notoriety, and maybe even some venture capital.
On one hand, yes, 3D printing has shown great promise and results. But, on the other, it’s largely wait and see.
Many have been lured into the promise of 3D printing with sensationalistic demonstrations as shown in the following video.
3D Printing: Make Anything You Want
Interestingly, the video implies that with the right tool (in this case a 3D printer) virtually anyone can be an accomplished designer of masterful designs. Personal experience has proven otherwise . . . remember the “ransom note” letters you received when multiple fonts first became available. That proved that not everyone is a graphic designer, and I think the same argument could be made for 3D printers not making everyone an accomplished product designer. I will concede that 3D printers have democratized product design to a certain degree, but the majority of parts I have seen produced by the common man are just that – common.
However, I, along with a number of industry pundits, most notably, Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, somewhat agree that 3D printing will have its greatest impact going forward in a couple major areas:
These two areas are interesting because they rely not on the low-end, low-cost 3D printers making iPhone cases and bracelets, but parts made on relatively high-end machines with real value beyond trinkets.
For example, late last year I discussed a New Company Focusing On 3D Printing With Graphene
It’s not too often that a new material with incredible physical and electrical characteristics comes along, much less a process for turning it into products with endless possibilities. Well, that very thing happened recently when Lomiko Metals and Graphene Laboratories launched Graphene 3D Labs.
The company was formed primarily to focus on developing high-performance graphene-enhanced materials for 3D printing.
Graphene is one of the crystalline forms of carbon that also include diamond, graphite, and carbon nanotubes.
Is this new material and process in danger of being overhyped? Possibly, but maybe not. A lot of promising technologies have failed to profitably translate from being novelty research projects to commercially viable products. This one, though, seems different, because graphene’s physical and electrical properties are so unique and its possible applications in commercial products are so vast. And then there’s the 3D printing aspect.
A second question arises, does everybody need to own a 3D printer? Last year, I asked “Why Buy When You Can Rent?”
The 3D printing process and the notion of a 3D printer in every home has received a lot of attention the past few years, and sales of relatively low cost 3D printers have skyrocketed. That is, until recently. According to the Wohlers Report, sales of 3D printers started to decline last year and have continued to accelerate downward this year.
But why, for a process and capability that was supposed to be ubiquitous and necessary for every home? The machines may be relatively inexpensive, but how many parts are you truly going to want to ultimately design and produce? Then there are material, size/volume, and physical characteristic, and quality limitations. The machines can also be fickle to set up and maintain. I suspect that after an initial period of excitement and promise, a lot of early-purchase 3D printers are now sitting idle and collecting dust.
Why own when you can rent. I’m starting to see this same mindset enter into the psyches of early purchasers of 3D printers.
That mindset has produced a possible opportunity for easily “renting” a 3D printer at a location as close as your local Staples or UPS store.
Several months ago, office supply retail giant, Staples, announced that they had opened its first 3D printing “Experience Centre” in the Netherlands to modest success.
Will this example and others make fans and proponents of 3D printing quit buying and start renting? If the successes of other online 3D printing “rental” services, such as RedEye, Shapeways, and i.Materialise are any indication, then there just might be a place for “walk-up” 3D printing at Staples and UPS stores.
One of our readers had this to say: “3D printing for home users is still very much in its infancy, with a few early-adopters thinking that it would be cool to design and produce models at home. You are right that the novelty soon wears off. However, a focus on the home market is a distraction from what is happening in 3D printing. It is in design studios – both sub-contract and OEM – that 3D printing is bearing real benefits. It is here that enough models are printed to make 3D printing the technology of choice for rapid prototyping. Also it is here where ownership proves more economical, faster and more secure than outsourcing to bureaus.”
So, to answer the initial question: Is 3D printing a miracle, or at least a marvel? Well, yes and no. By itself, I’d say marginally, but it has to get beyond a perception that it’s a panacea for all types of product development and production. I think it has its greatest potential as part of a new emerging class of hybrid 3D printers that employ both additive manufacturing (AM) and subtractive (conventional machining) methods. Each technique has distinct advantages and benefits and several companies are developing technologies and machines that exploit the best of both manufacturing techniques.
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