The Advantages of 3D Printing
Written by Ben Redwood
3D printing creates parts by building up objects one layer at a time. This method offers many advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques (for example CNC machining), the most important of which that apply to the industry as a whole are covered in this article.
3D Printing is unlikely to replace many traditional manufacturing methods yet there are many applications where a 3D printer is able to deliver a design quickly, with high accuracy from a functional material.
Understanding the advantages of 3D printing allows designers to make better decisions when selecting a manufacturing process and enables them to deliver an optimal product.
Ordering a faulty prototype costs the designer time and money. Even small changes in a mold or fabrication method may have a large financial impact.
Being able to verify a design by printing a production-ready prototype before investing in expensive manufacturing equipment (e.g. molds or tooling and jigs) eliminates the risk during the prototyping process. This helps with building confidence in one's design before making the large investments required for the mass production level.
Complexity and design freedom
The restrictions imposed by traditional manufacturing on what can be made are generally not relevant for additive manufacturing. Since components are constructed one layer at a time, design requirements such as draft angles, undercuts and tool access do not apply, when designing parts to be 3D printed
While there are some restrictions on the minimum size features that can be accurately printed, most of the limitations of additive manufacturing center around how to optimally orientate a print to reduce support dependency and the likelihood of print failure. This gives designers a large amount of design freedom and enables the easy creation of very complex geometries.
Not only does 3D printing allow more design freedom, it also allows complete customization of designs. Since current additive manufacturing technologies excel in building single parts one at a time, they are perfectly suited for one-off production.
This concept has been embraced by the medical and dental industry for the manufacture of custom prosthetics, implants, and dental aids. From high-level sporting gear that is tailored to fit an athlete perfectly to custom sunglasses and fashion accessories, additive manufacturing allows cost-effective single run production of custom parts.
Ease of access
While additive manufacturing has been around for more than 30 years, the majority of growth has occurred since 2010. This has to lead to a large number of 3D printers entering the industry, making it significantly easier for designers to access additive manufacturing technology.
In 2015 alone, more than 278,000 additive manufacturing printers valued under \$5000 were sold globally. The number of printers sold doubled consistently since. What was originally a niche technology accessible only to a small segment of the manufacturing industry is now readily available and cost competitive method of part production utilized by a vast range of industries.
Subtractive manufacturing methods, such as CNC milling or turning, remove a significant amount of material from an initial block, resulting in high volumes of waste material.
Additive manufacturing methods generally only use the material needed to build a part. Most processes use raw materials that can be recycled and re-used in more than one builds. As a result, additive manufacturing process produces very little waste.
The increase in the number of additive manufacturing machines in the world has also impacted the distance prototypes are shipped:
Because tabletop 3D printers have a relatively small learning curve to operate successfully, designs do not need to be sent away to an expert to be manufactured. Moreover, the footprint of an industrial additive manufacturing system is much smaller than the footprint of a traditional manufacturing site.
For this reason, professional 3D printing services are created around the world, even in locations where the cost of land is high (for example in London or New York). The reduction in shipping requirements has a positive environmental impact. This, coupled with the ability to print and produce spare parts on site, results in a much smaller carbon footprint for most parts produced via additive manufacturing.