Is 3D Printing For Me? Part 1

By Michiel Beek | Small Business

The 3D printer is getting popular – and fast. But it’s not as new a phenomenon as you might think. The technology is actually more than 25 years old. The last few years have seen rapid improvements though, with the printers becoming more affordable. As a result, more people are asking about the advantages of 3D printing, and the actual possibilities for it’s use. In the first of two articles, we’re going to look at some answers to the above.

What is 3D-printing?
3D-printing is a technique where material – usually plastic – is built up, layer by layer, until it creates a fixed form. This way of working sometimes makes it possible to create objects that would previously have been impossible with existing production techniques (working from a block). In addition to plastic, it’s also possible to print with other materials, including metal and organic compounds.

The first 3D-printer was made in the USA in 1984. 3D-printing is a form of Additive Manufacturing (AM) and was already being used at the end of the ’80′s by universities and large industrial companies for “rapid prototyping”.

However, it’s over the last 10 years that it’s commercial applications have really taken off – largely due to those improvements in the technology and reductions in price. A 3D-printer is now available for around €500, although the performance will also be at the bottom end of the scale, even small items like a chess piece taking a couple of hours to create. There are also “open-source 3D-printers” available, that can be put together by handy, enthusiastic hobbyists for a fraction of the investment.

More than 50,000 3D-printers were sold in 2013, with the expectation that this will double by 2015 – a clear indication of the growth the market is experiencing.

The benefits
3D printing technology offers manufacturing companies a number of exciting possibilities:

• Less or no investment in production line set up
While other production methods require a production line to be established before a product can be delivered, 3D-printing doesn’t. This means that 3D-printing is ideally suited to the making of custom items or prototypes. Making a (usually one-off) custom hearing aid, for example, still requires a mold to be designed and developed. 3D-printing allows this to be avoided.

• More efficiency, from design to production
The 3D-printer runs according to a digital design (CAD), speeding the process and decreasing the room for human error. The design process can be sped up and made more efficient, prototypes being rapidly created and made directly available for testing. When you think of a new idea today, full integration between 3D-CAD-modelling and 3D-printing means the first proof of concept can be available tomorrow.

• Unique production method
3D-printing enables manufacturers to create products or parts of products that are quite simply not possible to make using other techniques and a raw quantity of base material. Or that may be technically possible, but would be too time and/or money consuming to be practical or profitable.

With the above in mind, 3D-printing is especially well suited to the following processes:

• Prototyping
Speed is of the essence when it comes to making prototypes. In an ideal world, the process from request to delivery goes as quickly as is possible. 3D-printing supports manufacturers in getting the first version made as quickly as possible, and ensures that the investment (in production media) required to do that remains at a minimum.

Producers of sports clothing and shoes, PUMA, have used 3D-printing to reduce the production time involved in sole prototype development by 75%.

• Making molds
A mold is often crafted as a one off. This makes their production, relatively seen, quite expensive and potentially wasteful. From this technical point of view, molds lend themselves well to being produced by a 3D printer, making more efficient use of materials and helping to trim costs. Xerox, the printer manufacturer, has reduced wastage by 91% since they began using 3D-printing to create their molds.

• Small series/custom work
Just as with prototypes and molds, custom builds are also often turned out as a ‘series of one’. This has seen 3D printing being used more and more for these types of projects. The technique can also be well suited to the technical aspects of some custom builds, the specialist changes required sometimes pushing the bounds of what traditional techniques can achieve.

In part 2, we’ll look in more detail at the practical applications for 3D printing, now and in the future, and how you can determine for yourself whether the technique has something to offer your business.

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