It appears that 3D printing is an almost endlessly useful and revolutionary technology. In recent years, numerous articles highlighting new 3D printing tech have dominated social media, giving 3D printing the appearance of an infallible ‘miracle tech’ that can achieve almost anything. 3D printing, or rapid prototyping, is becoming increasingly relevant to almost everyone, from hobbyist “makers”, to engineers of all disciplines. It has started a new wave of creation and possibility that was not possible before, and for this reason, 3D printing has been declared as the cause of an unofficial “new industrial revolution”. However, although 3D printing is incredibly useful, it is not meant to replace or exceed the abilities and reason to use other manufacturing methods. It is important to realize as well that 3D printing is most powerful in complement to other skills and methods.
Rapid prototyping, better known as 3D printing (though there are other rapid prototyping methods that do not involve 3D printing, it is the most common), is the most powerful for one main reason: customizability. As 3D printers aimed at hobbyists become more and more affordable, almost anyone can design something and watch it come to life in their hands. One can quickly adjust the dimensions of a model and print it out for testing within a few hours, removing the cumbersome process of dealing with a large-scale manufacturer to produce just one sample. Engineers are also picking up 3D printers for use in the design process—according to Wanted Analytics, thirty five percent of engineering job listings required 3D printing skills in 2014. 3D printer technology appears to improve and grow in breadth every year, with things such as 3D printed organs, food, and circuits in development.
However, the applicability and necessity of 3D printing should not be overestimated. Even those who work with 3D printers daily, such as Nick Allen (founder of 3D printing company 3D Print UK), agree that 3D printing is no ultimate revolution, and the opinion that it will be one is due to media raising audience expectations to unreasonable levels.
Affordable ‘home’ 3D printers (designed for casual use) and any others using layers of material, usually plastic, to form a physical object do not have the structural integrity to be used practically in engineering applications. There are printers which use UV-cured resin to create a much smoother and finer result, however in this case the resin material used is relatively expensive. Undoubtedly, we will see more and better materials available to be 3D printed in the future, but one thing that we will probably never see is the printing of plastic and metal at the same time. Part of the appeal of 3D printing is being able to print and object in one piece—while this allows the objects to be created which cannot be made any other way, this is not always practical in relation to daily objects. Many commonplace objects in our daily lives use a mixture of various materials, so being able to print such a thing would be impossible due to the vastly different melting points of metal and plastic. One could use plastic with infused metal powder, but that lacks the material properties of metal.
Although some companies may choose to 3D print some parts, it is not always preferable. In the view of Graehem Douglas, a Mechanical Engineer who has worked with 3D printers, 3D printing is definitely not on its way to dominate manufacturing. The cost to print a single prototype may be small (which is good in the case where only one unique copy of an item is necessary), but there is no economy of scale—making the production of a large number of objects much less cost-effective compared to, for example, injection moulding. For now, 3D printing also has a large amount of overhead: for a printer which uses extruded plastic, a complex print of high resolution can take hours, or even a whole day. For engineers still in the design process of an item, 3D printing is great. 3D printing may also be necessary if the part cannot be produced easily using other methods. Overall, it’s probably too much to expect everyone in the world to be churning out 3D printed everything.
While many of 3D printing’s limitations and flaws right now have the capability to be improved through various technological advances, 3D printing should be viewed unbiased as one of many manufacturing methods of the future. We may see 3D printers in everyone’s homes soon, but that doesn’t mean that we should think of them differently than all the great technology that has also improved our lives.
Written by Jenna Mar & Oliver Wockner, engineering students at McGill University.