3D printing owes its existence to rapid prototyping and is now an established and essential part of that industry 3D printing though is now expected to move on and become a revolutionary technology for the manufacturing industry with many comparing it to the first use of printing presses in terms of the impact it could have.
3D printing certainly has the potential to be huge, as soon as it can compete on price with traditional manufacturing on the kind of medium runs that are commonplace. At the moment the price of materials and the printers themselves still limit the use of 3D printers to short runs and one offs include bespoke products: these are growing industries but they are not replacing existing manufacturing but making products possible that weren’t in the past, due to the cost of making bespoke products and short runs of products.
It does however seem that the tipping point will come sooner or later with costs of 3D printers and the materials used within them coming down fast. Relatively few have made successful businesses out of using 3D print yet though and those who have focus on toys such as bespoke dolls, action figures with your head printed on to them and sno-globes with your house printed in miniature inside: fun but not exactly earth shattering.
Where 3D printing is making more of a useful impact is in Aerospace and Medical fields. In Aerospace 3D printed parts are being made for aircraft such as the Boeing Dreamliner, they save on materials, weight and are quicker and cheaper to make using 3D printers: these parts are of course being made a few hundred or less at a time in expensive materials.
In medicine 3D printing is being used to print very detailed models based on CRI scan data which can be used in surgery as a guide but also experiments are seeing replacement tissue and parts being made at least with the aid of 3D print.
3D printing is in fact being used almost as much to make molds as to make finished parts, a mold can be made in a hard resin that can then be used to make products using traditional techniques in other materials or in some cases 3D printers are used to make a mold in order to make a metal mold which will then be used for long runs.
As well as the point where manufacturing using 3D printers actually becomes cheaper than currently used manufacturing techniques, like tooling, the other barrier is that companies are setup to use the equipment they already own and have invested in and will have planned to replace only after a set number of years. Even with a clear advantage there will be a barrier to switching over to 3D printing that also would lead to massive redundancy as far less human input would be required, with 3D printers capable of printing preassembled products even.
It may mainly be new businesses then that invest in 3D print equipment for now and it is ideal to prove a concept and a demand for a product before investing in other manufacturing equipment, the rise in 3D printing may remain slow though with some companies opting to change when they are ready to invest in new equipment anyway and others slowly following when they can no longer compete: have no doubt though this time will eventually come.