The term “3D printing” refers to a manufacturing process in which three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) files are downloaded to a machine that creates multiple layers of material (paper, plastic, metal, etc.). These are then fused to form a three-dimensional object representing an exact replica of the 3D virtual model.
In a global economy in which material, resources and energy are becoming scarcer and more expensive, 3D printing technology is transforming manufacturing as it becomes an accepted technology for bringing new products to the market.
The process bears little resemblance to today’s document or photo printers that can only render a flat, two-dimensional replica of the original. The 3D printing machines can build objects from scratch out of a variety of materials and, in some cases, even replicate assembled objects.
From a technological perspective, 3D printing is an outgrowth of traditional 2D printing in which a layer of material (usually some form of ink) is applied. The layer is so thin there is no noticeable height. What 3D printing does is to greatly extend that height by applying multiple layers of materials, adding the third dimension and actually building the object.
Software that takes a series of digital slices through a CAD model defines the layers. These digital slices can be put together using different techniques that involve a variety of technologies.
Engineers and designers across automotive, aerospace and other discrete manufacturing industries have been using 3D printing technology, also called rapid prototyping, for more than a decade to make prototypes parts quickly and cheaply. These prototypes are used to determine the fit, form, and function of a part before moving to the substantially more expensive process of tooling up a production part.
As 3D printers have become more sophisticated, reliable and capable of working with a broader range of materials and processes, the machines are increasingly being used to make actual production parts.
3D printing can save money over subtractive fabrication processes, as very little raw material is wasted. Each part can be built using techniques best suited for the particular part on a case-by-case basis. This eliminates expensive tooling and setup dedicated to a single part.
Moreover, the printers can produce specific objects based on the CAD model that traditional machining and forming techniques would struggle with and in a variety of materials. These include exotic metals such as titanium or stainless steel; plastic, nylon, and composites; or even food products such as cheese, chocolate or icing.
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3D-printed parts and products have the potential to transform manufacturing simply because the technique lowers the cost of fabrication and material while allowing manufacturers to reduce the risks associated with large production runs. Manufacturers will not be forced to make thousands of items to recover the fixed costs of tooling and large-scale production systems.
In a world market in which economies of scale matter less and mass-producing parts in large production runs is not economically feasible in a rapidly changing market, 3D printing will allow for affordable customization and manufacture to order.
Among the many items that are being made with 3D printers are shoe designs, furniture, jewelry, tools, gift and novelty items, and even toys. Industries like automotive and aerospace, which have used 3D printing extensively for prototyping, are now producing parts for their production lines with 3D printers.
ARC Advisory Group believes that 3D printing represents a disruptive technology that will support a significant change in the way that products are produced. It is a technology that will help usher in a new economic model for manufacturing in which mass customization and manufacture to order will prevail to satisfy diverse and dynamic customer requirements.
Dick Slansky, email@example.com, is Senior Analyst with ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass.