More than thirty years ago, engineers saw the introduction of a technology known as 3D printing. Designed to speed up prototyping, media hype gave the impression that these devices were almost identical to the Star Trek Replicator—the device that will make anything out of random molecules, including “Earl Grey, hot,” as spoken often by Captain Picard on the TV show.
As many in the industry know, education on what 3D printing is and can do is still a critical need. I frequent a website called Quora and the questions I see about what 3D printing is and is not is a clear indication that misconceptions abound. One of the more recent questions was: Is 3D printed food better for you than organic food?
Clearly, there’s a long way to go in educating the masses about this technology.
Some of the more frequently held misunderstandings about 3D printing, additive manufacturing capabilities follow.
Some people think a 3D printer can replace all other types of machines and tools that make things.
It’s the application that determines the best tool for the job. Machines and injection molding systems have been optimized for decades to perform certain making functions as optimally as mechanics and electronics allow. 3D printers will not replace CNC machining (in any form) or injection molding. As with all tools, there are limitations to this technology.
People expect that 3D printers should operate fast. Well, they don’t. Even the simplest object can take roughly an hour to make, depending on the printer and the material. For comparison, a stamping press can make tens of thousands of simple parts, like flat retaining rings, in less than 1 second. At the moment, and probably for a long time, no 3D printer will do that. 3D printing technology has made improvements in speed, and will continue to do so, but in comparison to other manufacturing technologies, they are still slow.
The resolution of most 3D printers is limited when compared to injection molding and machining.
3D printers will not “create” something out of nothing. For example, a number of people believe that 3D printers can make food, not realizing that you need grown food first in order to 3D print it. A printer requires some material to work with. And the material must be in a form usable by the printer—so far, those forms are powder or filaments.
What 3D printers can do is make shapes, often amazingly complex shapes. But many 3D printers are limited to printing with one type of material, either plastics or metals.
3d printers can be useful as part of a larger manufacturing workflow for custom items, especially in the medical industry with custom implants, for example.
While 3D printers can consolidate the number of parts that go into an assembly, they still lack the ability to produce totally finished parts. For example, they won’t make an oscilloscope in one build session. Or a car, with all the hoses, engine, sensors, etc.
3D printing can reduce development time and get a product into the hands of consumers faster than most other technologies. It shrinks the time it takes to prototype, test, break, redesign, reprint, and repeat these steps—that is its key value add in today’s marketplace.