Is 3D Printing The Good one

The process of 3D printing is quickly altering the way entrepreneurs think about their production cycles. Historically, 3D printing has been used to speed up the process of creating prototypes, but as the technology has evolved, 3D printing has made its way into large industries like the aerospace and biomedical fields. And it’s creating some groundbreaking results.

While 3D printers still have a long way to go before they are perfected, their increased adoption by companies big and small has signaled a change in thinking for businesses, during both the design and production phases. To find out more about how 3D printing technology is affecting business today and where it’s going in the future, Business News Daily spoke to engineers and entrepreneurs about the possibilities afforded by 3D printers.

3D printing

First of all, what is 3D printing? It’s the process by which three-dimensional digital models are made into physical objects using a 3D printer. Working in tandem with computer software, the 3D printer reads a digital .STS file on a computer and then uses a filament or a resin to render the digital representation in tangible material, layer by layer.

3D printers employ a variety of materials, including plastics and polymers, steel, titanium, gold, and ceramic. This versatility means 3D printed models can be used for everything from artistic sculptures to airplane components. Some 3D printers can even print proteins and chemicals, enabling the devices to create foods and medicines.

“I don’t think there’s a component made today that won’t somehow be touched by 3D printing in some fashion or another, whether directly or indirectly,” said Mark Cola, president and CEO of 3D printing and quality assurance company Sigma Labs.

Most experts agree major developments in 3D printing are just a few years around the corner, and these advances will revolutionize the way businesses think about manufacturing and their supply chains. First, let’s take a look at some of the ways businesses are already using 3D printers.

Applications for 3D printers

Prototyping

One of the oldest uses for 3D printers is the quick and efficient creation of prototypes. Since the printers were invented in 1983, companies have employed 3D printing in order to get a workable model of their desired end product, either to test the concept or present it to future investors.

“Before we called it 3D printing, it was called rapid prototyping,” Greg Paulsen, director of project engineering for third-party manufacturer Xometry, said. “It used to be seen as a way to get close enough to a functional model.”

Now, that’s changing. While entrepreneurs still gladly use 3D printing for prototyping, the technology has become more accessible and adaptable, leading to new applications.

Low-volume manufacturing

Though 3D printers can be slow-moving, they’re adept at fulfilling low-volume production needs. Much like with prototyping, if an entrepreneur is ready to launch a new product and isn’t certain of the demand, he or she can print up a small amount to test the waters. Low-volume production is also common when it comes to medical devices, for example, as manufacturers create, test and redesign their products for optimization.

“When small companies develop new products and need to make 50 parts to test, or just to bring to a trade show, tooling up for traditional manufacturing can be very expensive,” Doug Collins, owner of Avid 3D Printing, said. “They might not have the capital to tackle [traditional manufacturing]. 3D printers allow low-volume production without as much investment, so they can save that capital for the other important stuff, like marketing.”

Mechanical parts

Another beneficial use for 3D printers in is the creation of mechanical parts, either for sale in large industries or for personal repairs. Many products of 3D printing aren’t sold directly to consumers, but are created by companies (or third-party contractors) as components in a larger project. One example is GE Aviation’s 3D printed fuel nozzle, which will be added to the company’s CFM LEAP airplane engines.

Small machine shops or individuals looking to make home repairs can also employ the same techniques for their projects. 3D printing has made it far easier to reproduce parts for machines that might no longer be in production or that would take too long to arrive.

“I grew up in a small town of about 5,000 people. My stepfather is a mechanic, and he often needs to get specific parts that aren’t immediately available,” said Brent Hale, owner of 3D printing review website 3D Forged. “Rather than having to drive out of town to get a single part, or instead of having to wait weeks for a custom part to come in, if my stepfather or the small local hardware [store] have a 3D printer, he can purchase the printable schematics for the part he needs directly from the manufacturer — or design them himself — upload them to the 3D printer, and have his new part without having to leave town or wait weeks for the part to be shipped to him.”