The Pros and Cons of 3D printing

The technology can be used to quickly print low-cost houses – but it’s not right for every manufacturing scenario.

To the layperson, 3D printing sounds less like a manufacturing technique than magic. Often, people misunderstand it as “a replicator from Star Trek,” said Kent Mages, owner of Custom Color 3D Printing. “Some sci-fi thing [where]… I can just snap my fingers and boom.” 

That’s not how it works, though. Yes, you can 3D-print lots of things, including large-scale things like bridges. But you can’t do so instantaneously, Mages explained. It takes time. It also takes the right hardware and support structures.

“You need something to actually print on,” he said.

Here are the broad strokes of how the process works: You start with a printer. Some models can fit on a desk. Industrial versions, on the other hand, can measure more than 20 feet tall and need lots of space. But they all work roughly the same way: rather than printing line by line, like their 2D brethren, 3D printers print layer by layer. 

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3D printing adds up

3D printing continues to displace traditional manufacturing methods

Computer 3D printing (3DP) is being widely adopted in high-volume industrial sectors such as aerospace, automotive, healthcare and defense. Universities and other educational institutions also have incorporated 3DP into their technical training programs.

“3DP addresses the issues of cost, weight and reliability,” says Debbie Naguy, chief of the Product Support Engineering Division at the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center in Dayton, Ohio. “It is prevalent everywhere, from aviation to automotive.”

3D printing is also called additive manufacturing (AM). Traditional manufacturing starts with a slab of material and eliminates whatever is unnecessary to form an object, creating waste that carries financial and environmental consequences. Additive manufacturing, by contrast, layers powdered alloys to build a three-dimensional object. The improved accuracy, enhanced product design and shorter time to market demonstrably lower costs. Leftover material can be reused. AM requires design to be done on computers, so it can be uploaded to the 3D printers.

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3D printing and additive manufacturing – what’s the difference?

If you do it in your garage, it’s “3D printing”. If it’s used to build a car, it’s “additive manufacturing”? Where’s line between these two terms? Let’s see if we can’t find it.

A new way of making.

Are “3D printing” and “additive manufacturing” (AM) the same thing? In general, we know that terms stretch over time to include more than just their default meanings. Most of us carry digital entertainment supercomputers around in our pockets, and call them “phones”.

Whatever the name, new ways of fabricating directly from bytes to stuff are radically changing the what, where, how, and when of making objects. What roles, then, do the two terms “additive manufacturing” and “3D printing” play in describing new ways of making?

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The pros and cons of 3D printing

There are a number of challenges facing lab design/build experts—cost and availability of equipment and supplies, as well as ordering and transporting them, are among such concerns. Time is also a factor in many lab builds or renovations.

A relatively new innovation, 3D printing, could offer a solution to such challenges. First developed in the 1980s, 3D printing has picked up steam in recent years and has been used in a number of fields—medical devices and prosthetics, surgical models, dental molds, aircraft parts and entire, road-ready cars. Novelty keepsakes have also taken off, proving that such technology isn’t exclusively for big labs and major companies. For example, a coworker has a four-inch figurine of himself perched proudly on his desk. If you’ve got the cash, then a 3D printer could be yours. 

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3D printing to disrupt selected manufacturing techniques says DHL

DHL released its latest DHL Trend Report today – 3D Printing and the Future of Supply Chains. DHL has been testing a variety of both 3D printing hardware and techniques for several years and has identified applications that have potential to redefine manufacturing and supply chain strategies. While the 3D printing market is estimated to grow between US$180 billion and US$490 billion by 20251, the report however finds it will not become a substitute for mass-production but a complementary process.

Matthias Heutger, Senior Vice President, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation, said: “The DHL Trend Report ‘3D Printing and the Future of Supply Chains’ recognizes 3D printing as a transformative technology. However, it is not a magic bullet that will render factory mass production and manufacturing obsolete. Its exciting potential lies more in its capability to simplify the production of highly complex and customizable products and spare parts – and this could bring logistics and manufacturing closer together than ever before.”

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Early days of internet offer lessons for boosting 3D printing

Even in its relative infancy, 3D printing has created an enormous list of possibilities: dental aligners to straighten your teeth, unique toys for your children, inexpensive custom prosthetics for people with limb deficiencies, and restoring lost or destroyed cultural artifacts. It can also be used to create untraceable firearms and an endless supply of copyright infringements.

Just as when the internet developed, 3D printing is opening doors to amazing opportunities and benefits – as well as some undeniable dangers. Also called “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing’s enabling of truly decentralized, democratized innovation will challenge traditional legal, economic and social norms. Potentially faulty products and counterfeit goods are again among the leading concerns. Some people are already calling for preemptive regulation of 3D printing on those grounds.

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UPS teams with SAP to invest in 3-D printing

Someday, the dusty back shelves of America’s warehouses could be replaced by UPS and SAP-enabled 3-D printing.

The companies on Wednesday said their goal is to transform the now ad hoc realm of industrial 3-D printing into a seamless, on-demand manufacturing process, from order to manufacturing and delivery.

“We don’t think this is going to take over manufacturing anytime soon. But we do think it’s going to be a disruptor much in the same way that online retail has disrupted retailing,” said Hans Thalbauer, senior vice president for extended supply chain at SAP.


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