By now, most everyone is probably aware of 3D printing– it’s in the media, talked about in blogs and seen on TV. The thought of being able to make products ourselves with CAD programs, apps and 3D scanners and then print them out at home is simply mind-boggling. Will this in turn decentralize the manufacturing process? Only time will tell but let’s look at the pros and cons of 3D printing.
For those not aware, 3D printing is the process of making a solid object of virtually any shape (size does matter though) from a digital model. It is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is also considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).
A materials printer usually performs 3D printing using digital technology. The 3D printing technology is used generally for prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in architecture, engineering, automotive, military, medical industries and even in biotech with human tissue replacement; and the list goes on. People have seen a 3D printed violin, a wrench, toys, and guns straight out from a printer. The thought of a gun being manufactured by a printer can have pretty scary implications. In some respects 3D printing opens up many possibilities but also challenges. Let’s look at the pros and cons of 3D printing and the potential ramifications it could have on our future:
The Advantages of 3D Printing
- Rapid Prototyping: Products can more quickly go from just a design to an actual prototype. There is no tooling, which opens up a world of opportunity to the designer.
- Speeds up Manufacturing Process for bringing a product to market.
- Reduces Costs – Even though the initial setup costs are higher, 3D printing is becoming cheaper and continues to come down, therefore the potential of 3D printers in homes is getting closer every day.
- Higher Paying Jobs: More engineers are needed to design and build 3D printers, and more technicians are needed to maintain, use, and fix 3D printers too.
- Medical Applications: One of the innovative products that 3D printing may provide is the manufacturing of customizable human body parts or organs. While these usages are still experimental, the potential advantages are huge. Imagine doctors quickly building and replacing critical organs, such as the heart, lungs, or liver that will have almost no chance of donor rejection, since the organs will be built using the patients’ unique characters and DNA. Yes, it does sound scary.
The Disadvantages of 3D Printing
Fewer Manufacturing Jobs: As with all new technologies, manufacturing jobs generally decrease as result of new (3D Printing) technology. This has a large impact to the economies of third world countries those that depend on a large number of low skill jobs.
- Limited Materials: Currently, 3D printers manufacture products out of plastic, resin, certain metals, and ceramics. 3D printing of products in mixed materials and technology, such as circuit boards, are still under development.
- Copyright: As 3D printing becomes more common, the printing of copyrighted products to create counterfeit items becomes a greater problem.
- Dangerous Items: 3D printers can create dangerous items, such as guns and knives, with very little or no oversight.
- Limited Size: Currently, 3D printers are limited with the size of the products that they can create.
- Limited Strength: 3D printed parts are not as strong as traditionally-manufactured parts. Their layer-by-layer technique of manufacturing is both a strength and weakness. In 3D printing, you are building a product in layers and layers don’t bond as well.
With the advantages of 3D printing, mankind may be entering a new post-industrial manufacturing age where products are significantly cheaper and built quicker than ever before. However, the disadvantages of 3D printing need to be better understood and to be mitigated against and I am not so sure how that will be addressed (as it relates to guns etc.).
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