Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last decade, you’ve probably heard about 3D printing and some of its incredible applications. The technology often makes for intriguing news stories, such as this one about a restaurant that uses a 3D printer to prepare diners’ food.
The odd thing about 3D printing is that we’ve believed for five or six years that it would change the face of manufacturing. But this supposed revolution has yet to materialize. The potential is definitely there – 3D printing is not just useful for printing quirky things that make news headlines. The potential is there to make functional products for practical day to day use.
It’s strange that the production process hasn’t caught up with the digital world we live in. Everything else around us has been modernized, but most material goods are still made using the same essential manufacturing method that was in use 50 years ago.
People can now find the love of their lives using just a smartphone (thanks, online dating). Businesses can receive instant customer feedback on social media. And cars don’t even need to be driven by humans anymore. But the manufacturing sector is still stuck in its old ways.
One of the postulated benefits of 3D printing is that it could decentralize the manufacturing industry. Currently, most products you buy are made in countries such as China, where the cost of labor is significantly lower than in the Western world. The exploitation of cheap labour isn’t exactly one of humanity’s finest traits.
The prediction about additive manufacturing was that people would eventually be able to walk into a local print store and get any product printed there and then. Or better still, print products at home using their very own desktop 3D printers.
Seeing as 3D printing clearly has all the attributes required to transform manufacturing, why hasn’t that transformation happened yet? In a world where instant gratification is par for the course, people are surprised at the slow growth of this exciting technology.
The truth is that people inside the industry are not too shocked that it’s taking longer than expected for 3D printing to bring tangible change to manufacturing. The technology is there to be used, and the potential benefits of 3D printing are clear. So what exactly is holding it back from a becoming mainstream technology that average Joe uses, not just enthusiastic hobbyists?
Let’s take a look at some of the key challenges the 3D printing industry faces if it’s going to revolutionize manufacturing, as promised.
- Good models are hard to find. The most accessible 3D printers in terms of price continue to use fused deposition modeling with PLA or ABS plastic filament. While these printers can produce aesthetically awesome models, the actual practicality of them tends to be poor. There are some great models around, but finding them is about as fun as searching for a needle in a haystack.
The team over at Print3d Mart are already attempting to solve this issue by compiling a catalog of practical, high-quality 3D models that people can use every day. The ambition is to demonstrate to people that 3D prints can be useful – they’re not just for hobbyists. A good way to get people to take an interest in a new technology is to show them how helpful it can be. Print3d Mart does a stellar job of that.
- “Desktop” 3D printers leave a lot to be desired. It’s reasonable to state that the growth potential of additive manufacturing will largely depend on the increasing availability of decent desktop 3D printers. Most high-quality printers are quite expensive, which means they aren’t an option for the everyday consumer.
Traditional ‘budget’ 3D printers priced at less than $1,500 are painfully slow, producing low-quality prints. Widespread customer adoption of 3d printing will rely on the implementation of a faster, better quality line of desktop printers.
Luckily, the revolution has already started for desktop printers. Just this year, a company called SLASH unveiled its desktop printer of the same name. This device prints high-quality models at 50x the speed of standard 3D desktop printers. And it costs just $1,400, which represents excellent value. SLASH uses an innovative new LCD-SLA light-curing system that prints at a blistering rate of 1000 cc/hr, making it a real game-changing consumer model.
- Limited Usability. A major obstacle of 3D printing is the fact that plastic isn’t that useful on its own. Most 3D printers use plastic filaments. Have a brief glance around you and check how many products in your current location are made of a single piece of plastic. The answer is probably close to zero, apart from the odd stray cup that cost you next-to- nothing.
Most everyday items are composed of different materials – both plastic and metal. For 3D printing to have a big impact on manufacturing, companies need to start thinking about how 3D components can integrate with other parts to form a finished product that people can actually use.
Print3d Mart is doing a good job of incorporating about the bigger picture by including assembly instructions and non-3D printed components with the models in their 3D printing catalog.
So, to answer the question posed in the title of this article – 3D printing is not just a technology fad. Additive manufacturing is a growing sector with a lot of potential applications. With any major revolution in how something is done, there’s always the possibility of a lag period as people need time to become convinced of its effectiveness. Manufacturing is no different in this respect.
3D printing is far from overhyped – the latest growth estimates show that the sector will experience a huge growth spurt in the coming years. With helpful companies such as Print3d Mart focusing on overcoming key challenges in the industry, and SLASH providing affordable 3D printing solutions for consumers, don’t be surprised if the additive manufacturing revolution gathers serious pace in the coming years.