The uses of 3D printing are endless. From doctors and dentists to architects, from students to designers, from manufacturing to small business.
From the start in the ’70s/’80s, when only big companies and industries could afford a 3D printer, things are changed a lot: nowadays the 3D printing market is bursting with new products that offer slightly different opportunities. The places itself among all of them with a very unique idea: reaching all the different areas of interest as it can turn itself into different machines.
3D printing creates parts by building up objects one layer at a time. This method offers many advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques (for example CNC machining), the most important of which that apply to the industry as a whole are covered in this article.
3D printing is unlikely to replace many traditional manufacturing methods yet there are many applications where a 3D printer is able to deliver a design quickly, with high accuracy from a functional material.
Understanding the advantages of 3D printing allows designers to make better decisions when selecting a manufacturing process and enables them to delivery an optimal product.
One of the main advantages of additive manufacture is the speed at which parts can be produced compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Complex designs can be uploaded from a CAD model and printed in a few hours. The advantage of this is the rapid verification and development of design ideas.
Where in the past it may have taken days or even weeks to receive a prototype, additive manufacturing places a model in the hands of the designer within a few hours. While the more industrial additive manufacturing machines take longer to print and post-process a part, the ability to produce functional end parts at low to mid volumes offers a huge time-saving advantage when compared to traditional manufacturing techniques (often the lead time on an injection molding die alone can be weeks).
The cost of manufacture can be broken down into 3 categories: machine operation costs, material cost and labor costs.
Machine operation costs:
Most desktop 3D printers use the same amount of power as a laptop computer. Industrial additive manufacturing technologies consume a high amount of energy to produce a single part. However, the ability to produce complex geometries in a single step results in higher efficiency and turnaround. Machine operation costs are typically the lowest contributor to the overall cost of manufacture.
The material cost for additive manufacturing varies significantly by technology. Desktop FDM printers use filament coils that cost around $25 per kg, while SLA printing requires resin that retails around $150 per liter. The range of materials available for additive manufacturing makes quantifying a comparison with traditional manufacturing difficult. Nylon powder used in SLS costs around $70 per kg, while comparable nylon pellets used in injection molding can be purchased for as little as $2 - $5 per kg. Material costs are the biggest contributor to the cost of a part made via additive manufacturing.
One of the main advantages of 3D printing is the the low cost of labor. Post-processing aside, the majority of 3D printers only require an operator to press a button. The machine then follows a completely automated process to produce the part. Compared to traditional manufacturing, where highly skilled machinists and operators are typically required, the labor costs for a 3D printer are almost zero.
Additive manufacturing at low volumes is very competitively costed compared to traditional manufacturing. For the production of prototypes that verify form and fit, it is significantly cheaper than other alternative manufacturing methods (e.g. injection molding) and is often competitive for manufacturing one-off functional parts. Traditional manufacturing techniques become more cost-effective as volume increases and the high setup costs are justified by the large volumes of production.
Single Step Manufacturing
One of the biggest concerns for a designer is how to manufacture a part as efficiently as possible. Most parts require a large number of manufacturing steps to be produce by traditional technologies. The order these steps occur affects the quality and manufacturability of the design.
Consider a custom steel bracket that is made via traditional manufacturing methods:
Similarly to additive manufacturing, the process begins with a CAD model. Once the design is finalized, fabrication begins with first cutting the steel profiles to size. The profiles are then clamped into position and welded one at a time to form the bracket. Sometimes a custom jig will need to be made up to ensure all components are correctly aligned. The welds are then polished to give a good surface finish. Next holes are drilled so the bracket can be mounted on the wall. Finally, the bracket is sandblasted, primed and painted to improve its appearance.
Additive manufacturing machines complete a build in one step, with no interaction from the machine operator during the build phase. As soon as the CAD design is finalized, it can be uploaded to the machine and printed in one step in a couple of hours.
The ability to produce a part in one step greatly reduces the dependence on different manufacturing processes (machining, welding, painting) and gives the designer greater control over the final product.