Those futurists and 3D printing enthusiasts that have commented on the future of 3D printing have often said that there are two things holding the technology back: one is cost that is constantly coming down already. The other thing is developing an affordable 3D printing service that can print in different materials so that completed working equipment such as engines and electronics can be made which could for example be printed with integral electric motors.
A 3D printing service has already been used to make a working clockwork cuckoo clock showing how it is possible to print items that are already assembled but not physically connected. Now the trick is to bring different materials together so that items including metals, glass and even circuit boards can be bought together.
3D printing is established for used creating prototypes but actually using a 3D printing service for additive manufacturing as it is known to create finished and functional products is in its infancy though many companies have shown interest and are investing in moving the technology forwards; this includes GE Aviation, Boeing, Honda and Lockheed Martin who have already used 3D printing service manufactured parts.
These are all companies where the price of using additive manufacturing is less important than other considerations such as the weight of parts, durability and reducing waste.
Within traditional manufacturing, not least with metals, waste is a big problem and when you take a piece of material and then shape it using milling a lot of material is removed, sometimes it can be reused but this is often not the case. With 3D printing only the material needed is used and it is a lot easier to build an internal structure on a part or product that is hollow meaning that items can be lighter as well as saving materials, yet with the right design they can be just as strong. Such lightweight parts are ideal in aviation and other transport.
How labor intensive 3D printing is is another important concern, printing a finished product means no labor intensive assembly, a product can be made ready to be put into its packaging and shipped, or potentially even the packaging can be printed.
The way items are shipped is another area where using a 3D printing service could lead to massive savings and this is linked to the fact that manufacturing won’t be labor intensive. No longer will China and other countries with cheap and abundant labor dominate manufacturing when the labor savings no longer outweigh the costs of having to ship items worldwide.
There will also no longer be the need to produce products on long runs either, a factory can produce 10 copies of 100 designs as efficiently as 1000 copies of one design. This means that manufacturing close to where products are needed could become more common with land prices the only remaining issue, although the foot print of a factory with no long production line would be a lot less.
Then of course there is the alternative that some people predict will eventually happen, this is manufacturing in your own home with a 3D printer able to produce almost any items, all you would need to do would be to keep it stocked with material and then order a design online and click print.