3D printing used to be a thing for enthusiasts and those in the manufacturing/design industry, but now the concept is embedded in the popular lexicon. It’s no longer ‘just’ a niche thing.
Yet 3D printing is still relatively new, at least with most of the wider public. The majority has heard of it, but the average household still doesn’t actually own one. We know there are loads they can do, but it’s all a little vague.
But don’t worry, we’re going to give you a run-down of what this technology can do and the opportunities it provides.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM) as it’s also known, is a process of creating solid objects from a basic digital file. It was invented back in the 1980s, but it’s only in recent years that the technology has evolved to be usable en masse.
At first, it was used simply as a quick prototyping tool. Designers could easily design and render their creations, testing and seeing them in live action. Once a design choice was made, the prototype was chucked and the real thing was created through traditional manufacturing processes.
In 2023, however, the story is a little different and 3D printing is now available to the wider public. You can pick up a decent 3D printer for just a few hundred bucks, and the possibilities are literally infinite.
How 3D Printing Works
We’re not going to give you a full technical guide on how the 3D process works, because that’s outside the scope of this piece, but here’s a brief run-down:
You first design the object in 3D using purpose-built software. It requires a little bit of creativity, as you can pretty much print anything. Examples of software you can use are Trimble or TurboCAD. You can also download creations designed by others, of which there are plenty online.
There’s also another slightly easier, yet sometimes more fiddly, option. That’s using a 3D scanner, which effectively allows you to pick any object within reach and print it.
The actual printing process can be compared to making sliced bread, but backwards. Instead of baking an entire loaf and cutting it into smaller pieces, the 3D printer essentially ‘stacks’ individual slices based on the design, with the heat and materials glueing into a single object (or loaf).
That’s why it’s called printing in the first place. If you look at how we print traditional text on paper, it’s actually sitting on the surface, it’s just so small it’s almost imperceptible. Imagine doing that several thousand times, and you’ve got yourself a solid object.
What Can 3D Printing Do For Us?
If it’s something you can manufacture, 3D printing can do it. Even if it’s a ‘not yet’, the technology is developing so rapidly that it will undoubtedly become available before you know it.
But if you want specific examples, we get it.
Okay, so think about that piece of kit that still works just fine, but has since been discontinued. It seems to happen a lot these days, even with stuff that’s still relatively new.
This is because companies make more money when you replace items, not when you fix them. 3D printing, however, can keep you going for years, as you can simply download and print a full replacement part without issue. Think of parts for your washing machine or even your car.
3D printers also allow you to print something in a fully customisable way. Made to measure, right from the comfort of your own home. For expensive items like medical equipment, for example, it’s a complete game-changer. 3D printing is currently being used to cultivate and encourage cell growth, for example, which is a revolutionary step.
Limitations of 3D Printing
Even though 3D printing is convenient and opens up options for smaller companies and households, it still doesn’t hold a candle when compared to the economies of scale of traditional manufacturing methods. This will likely change as the technology improves, but that’s the current situation.
3D printers have also come along in leaps and bounds in recent years, but it’s still a technology in its infancy. The smooth finishing offered by traditional industrial machines, for example, is an issue that 3D printing has yet to solve.
We’re also still limited by the types of materials used in 3D printing. Most household printers use acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is versatile, but does not offer the benefits of say glass or fibre.
In short, 3D printing can do a whole lot, but there is still plenty of room for growth. There are still many challenges the industry faces, but the sheer potential is impossible to ignore.
What Does the Future Hold?
3D printing is a relatively small part of the present, but it will undoubtedly constitute a huge chunk of the manufacturing future. As we’ve mentioned, the technology is developing at a hyperspeed pace, with new models and possibilities released daily.
We foresee a 3D printer that’s affordable and capable of printing most household items to a high manufacturing standard within the decade. It’s a seemingly bold statement, but just do a quick YouTube search on 3D printers after you leave this editorial. Trust us, you’ll then fully grasp why 3D printing enthusiasts are so giddy with excitement.