3D printing isn't quite as good as a Star Trek replicator, yet it still adds a new powerful tool to development and art. 3D printing is a way to create difficult shapes and prototype parts rapidly. Unfortunately, the techniques have some limitations that are being lost in the hype.
To start, the raw supplies are not cheap. Making a plastic mug on a 3D printer may be a fun project, but the cost per cup is generally around $30. Secondly, the resulting cup will be fragile. The layering process isn't done under pressure, and the cohesion between layers tends to be weak. Further, stamping or molding parts is much quicker than the time it takes to print it. Finally, 3D printers are expensive.
On the flip side, 3D printing allows you to make impossible shapes. Things that can't be carved or machined can be done using this approach, such as heart valves and objets d'art, which in turn gain an entirely new dimension.
3D printing is superb as a tool for development. I've used it to model computer boxes, so we can check everything from form and fit to aesthetics before actually tooling the parts. This alone has greatly shortened production times.
It is even better for plastics molding development. Making a few prototypes allows tuning the design before spending the dollars on tooling, and that vastly reduces costs, risks, and schedules. The designs can easily be fed from the CAD tools, and an overnight check print takes on a new meaning!
Bringing new opportunities
The jewelry trade is one place where 3D printing is beneficial. Traditionally, intricate shapes were carved in wax and then converted to a metal part using a foundry to replace the wax with metal. Now, in addition to making designs more detailed, jewelers are able to take a piece from an idea to reality in just a couple of weeks.
Complex shapes can be 3D printed in plastic. A bead can be imprinted with a cameo, and even the stringing hole can be printed. The potential for shapes is limited only by the designer's imagination and budget.
Setting up your own 3D printing facility isn't for the hobbyist. However, a newly emerging "3D print shop" industry offers 3D printing as a service. It's a natural fit as a service model, since doing the job right requires expertise that the average designer doesn't have and, by hiring the expert, doesn't need to learn.
There are more advanced uses for 3D printing, since metals, rather than just plastics and waxes, can be printed now. The original form of 3D printing, called stereo-lithography, has been joined by laser deposition techniques that can lay down metals. This approach is called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), where a thin layer of sinter metal is fused-on by a laser tracing a 2D pattern. This is repeated to generate a part. SLS can be used with both metals and ceramics. It's a new approach, with a lot of promise for small-run production work and as an alternative to investment casting.
Full color printing is possible now, and the issue of a smooth finish is addressed by printing wax-finished coats onto parts.
A solution for supply chain
For a certain group of industries, these technologies offer a solution to supply chain dilemmas, by providing parts on demand, rather than through a long pipeline. The adjacent chart highlights this well. 3D printing is a major enabler for point-of-use manufacturing.
The most exciting use of 3D printing is in medicine. Originally a modeling tool (heart valves were one of the first examples shown to prospective customers in the early days), parts are now being built to act as support for organs that are being grown as replacements.
It doesn't stop there. "Bio-Ink" allows the direct deposition of living cells on the support matrices, and experiments to grow artificial organs are underway. There's still much to be done, but making artificial skin for grafting and creating artificial ears and noses are close to being real.
Of course, we aren't able to get a hamburger and fries from a 3D printer, never mind the instantaneous delivery of real-world foodstuffs we saw in in Star Trek. At the same time, 3D printing is changing a lot of areas for the better. As the technology evolves, who knows what will happen next?
What do you think? Share your thoughts on 3D printing's place in the electronics supply chain below.