“If by some miracle some prophet could describe the future exactly as it was
going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everyone would laugh him to scorn.”
Arthur C. Clarke, author, speaking in 1964
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke went on from making this observation to describe the forthcoming advent of 3D printing.
And, sure enough, it came to pass.
Today, as 3D printing quite literally breaks the design and manufacturing mould across a range of sectors, it’s time to assess its true impact and where it may take us next.
The path that 3D printing has taken bears very little resemblance to what the prophets foresaw. Throughout the early years of the new millennium, futurists prophesised it would usher in a new consumer society. In this brave new world, the need to visit shops to buy things would be gone – and so too would the need to rely on online retailers’ massive warehouses to deliver our goods.
Soon, we were told, we would all be downloading a design file to our personal 3D printer and manufacturing our products – exactly as we wanted them to be – from the comfort of our homes.
Of course, this consumer revolution never happened.
However, a sea-change is quietly washing over the design, manufacturing and production sectors, one that is not deluded tech fantasy, but very real indeed.
Richard Hague, professor of innovative manufacturing at the University of Nottingham, compares the hype and reality of 3D printing with the dotcom crash of the late 90s.
“There were all these expectations about what the internet would do, and then the hype disappeared. But meanwhile, in the background, people were forging ahead, and actually some major industries emerged after that point. I think that’s where we are now.”
We’re going to look in more detail in our next blog at how 3D printing has led to additive manufacturing. We’ll chart how its disruptive potential is transforming the processes used – and products made – by sectors as diverse as medical, military, automotive, aerospace and electronics.
First, though, in this blog we’re going to highlight how 3D printing has also been freeing up the design space in which new products can be imagined and then tested.
3D printing and design
Let’s start with the basics.
There are a number of ways to print in 3D, but all are based on creating a digital model as a physical three-dimensional object by the gradual addition of material a layer at a time.
It is this process of addition that makes 3D printing a radically different way of manufacturing. Traditional technologies are based on subtraction from materials (such as CNC machining) or forming these existing materials (such as injection moulding).
One of the key benefits of 3D printing is that no special tooling or moulds are required – and this leads to many of the benefits we discuss below and in our next blog.
The 3D printing process is initiated directly from the digital model that forms the blueprint of the manufactured object. This model is sliced by the printer’s software into incredibly thin, 2-D layers and these are translated into the machine language (G-code) that the printer executes.
It is at this stage that 3D printers differ in their operation. For example, desktop FDM printers melt plastic filaments that are laid down through a nozzle, whereas large industrial SLS machines use lasers to melt (or sinter) thin layers of metal or plastic powders.
For more information about 3D printing technologies, this excellent guide from 3D Hubs details the differences.
Despite the possible production speeds of as little as four hours, it’s important to note that 3D printed parts often require some post-processing (usually manual) to achieve the desired level of finish.
3D printing and design benefits
Generally speaking, 3D printing is the best option when:
- A single (or only a few) parts are required
- A quick turnaround time and a low-cost is needed
- When the part geometry cannot be produced with any other manufacturing technology
- When high material requirements and tight tolerances for functional parts are not essential
Faster verification of designs
One of the main advantages of 3D printing is undoubtedly the speed at which parts can be produced compared to traditional manufacturing methods. The lead time on an injection moulding die alone can be a finger-tapping matter of weeks.
Complex designs can be uploaded from a CAD model and printed in a matter of hours. This offers designers rapid verification of design ideas.
It cuts out the need to create tools to create parts and also places the capabilities of production within the working space of the designer themselves – as opposed to at a plant that may be geographically remote from them.
3D printing allows designers to manufacture products and parts as efficiently as possible, cutting down on the number of manufacturing steps required by traditional technologies. These may include cutting, welding, polishing, drilling, mounting, sandblasting, priming and painting. 3D printing can complete all these steps as one, with no interaction from the machine operator.
Cost-savings for prototypes
Particularly where labour costs are concerned, 3D printing can slash the design costs for manufacturing prototypes.
Post-processing aside, the majority of 3D printers only require an operator to press a button. Compared to traditional manufacturing’s reliance on highly skilled machinists, the labour costs for a 3D printer barely register.
This means that for the creation of prototypes that verify the form and fit of a product, 3D printing is significantly cheaper than other methods.
Freeing up design space
The restrictions of traditional manufacturing on what can and can’t be made hold much less relevance for 3D printing. Design requirements such as draft angles, undercuts and tool access do not apply to designers using additive manufacture.
This gives designers a large amount of design freedom and enables the creation of very complex geometries.
Another freedom that 3D printing allows is the ability to completely customise designs. As additive manufacturing technologies excel in building single parts one at a time, they are perfectly suited for one-off production of unique, bespoke designs.
This ability has transformed the medical and dental industry to realise the manufacture of custom prosthetics, implants and dental aids. High-level sporting gear can now be tailored to fit an athlete perfectly and the fashion industry is also proving quick to realise the custom design benefits of 3D printing.
Source: 3D natives
The brave new world of 3D printing
We opened with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke suggesting that prophets of the future risk appearing ‘so far-fetched that everyone laughs them to scorn’.
The design benefits of 3D printing are not far-fetched hype: they are here, they are happening and they are making a real difference to the world we live in.
In our next blog we’ll look at how these benefits are not only transforming design but manufacture itself.