How 3D Printing may affect manufacturing in the future

It perhaps needed an all-encompassing article such as that from The Economist to really show us how far the 3D printing services industry has come. For those not directly involved in the industry or who use it for their own specific purposes some of the potential of 3D printing, often along with it’s sister technology 3D scanning, is astonishing and changes the way people including those in manufacturing look at the industry’s future.

As many would imagine the 3D printing industry is still dominated by prototyping, as the article in The Economist explains: though finished products now account for 20{ed34752d3d9237811f2899a265685e36705e4e86722207f201c96dd1cfc4a167} and The Economist quotes Terry Wohlers as predicting that 50{ed34752d3d9237811f2899a265685e36705e4e86722207f201c96dd1cfc4a167} of 3D printing services will be for finished products by 2020. This is of course because the technology has taken big steps forward in terms of the accuracy, the materials that can be printed in and also the fact that items can be printed complete with moving parts; The Economist mentions the design of a plastic mechanical clock that worked straight off of the 3D printer that made it.

This ability to print already assembled products is an important reason why 3D printing could challenge even mass production techniques in the future: massive savings on assembly costs. Other savings of course include that no material is wasted with a 3D printing service based on an additive process nor is there the cost of setting up a tooling machine to make a product designed on a computer. The computer design file is enough to make a finished product and of course talks directly to a 3D printer.

Although The Economist isn’t purely about economics it does point out that 3D printing could eliminate a central tenant of microeconomics: economies of scale. The way almost every manufacturing industry is run is based on the theory of economies of scale: as such companies make far more of a product than they know they can sell because each extra unit is relatively cheap: they then end up selling the extra they don’t sell at a discount. 3D printing of course would end this as it costs the same to build 100 units now and another 100 later, once demand had been proven, as 200 in one go.

The Economist article’s writer went to an aerospace facility in the UK to see how they were using a 3D printing service and with this industry it is the savings on materials that are perhaps most important. Using titanium to make parts is expensive so when you are using a tiny proportion of the titanium block you start with this has a major affect on your costs. Using Titanium powder in just the quantities you need is far cheaper. Perhaps then it is these kind of high tech industries where 3D printing will see growth first of all. As The Economist’s article moves on to though customized parts will also initially be a big growth area for 3D printing services. This includes parts that are needed quickly and can be printed by a company themselves or by a local 3D printing service rather than a part having to be delivered half way across the world. Also though customized could really mean individually customized: this could mean all sorts of products made with slight or even major tweaks to a standard design, such as a shoe designed for your foot shape, or it could even be individual’s own designs. Individuals homes may still not have a 3D printer for sometime but a local company who can provide a 3D printing service for individuals as well as businesses doesn’t sound too far fetched having read this article.

Source: Economist

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