The Reality of 3D Printing

December 12, 2013 • Technology

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There has been much speculation on the capabilities of 3D printing in recent years with suggestions that it will able to bring about a manufacturing revolution, even that home printing will destroy the manufacturing industry. Many of these claims are patently false, a result of ignorance, speculation and media exaggeration.

3D-printed Liver Building

3D-printed Liver Building (Photo credit: DoES Liverpool)

With traditional manufacturing such as injection moulding, production is incredibly quick and cheap, though expensive to set up. A laptop housing, for example, could be manufactured in minutes, if not seconds, whereas the same could take up to 24 hours on a home 3D printer. 3D printing additionally does not give the same finish, colour or strength. One may ask, then, whether this is a hindrance because of current technology or in fact a reality of 3D printing. Considering the technology has been around since the 1970’s it would be hard to dispute this is as being a reality of 3D printing. The speculation that one day everyone will have 3D printers at home, akin to paper printers, is unfeasible because of the costs and technicality involved.

There are 2 main reasons why 3D printing at home won’t take off. Firstly there is the huge technical know-how involved. CAD (computer aided-design) is a wildly powerful tool but is difficult to master, and many of the design blueprints floating around the internet are lacking in quality. Secondly, the running costs involved are hefty; a single kilo of resin can cost between £30 to £300.

The analogy we were given is that of printing a newspaper at home. Certainly it’s possible, but also it’s far more expensive, given the paper and ink costs, takes a longer time and is without doubt more hassle than simply purchasing one from a shop.

Inside 3D Printing Expo

3D Printed Shoes (photo credit: Inhabitat)

Why then is there so much hype around it? Because it makes a great story and speaks to that part of a person that DIY and other self-reliance measures do. More than that, it is both fantastical and interesting. Further interest was piqued by Cody Wilson, the 24 year old American who recently designed and manufactured a gun using 3D printing – raising questions about legality, gun policy and the future.

What then is the best case scenario for 3d printing? Primarily prototyping and model making. 3D printing is a boon for designers making initial non-working prototypes and model makers. There have also been forays into the fashion world with intricate jewellery designs having been manufactured – haute couture has also flirted with 3D printing.

So is 3D manufacturing the revolution it’s hyped up to be? For the masses, no. But for specialised industry, students, designers and model makers, 3D printing is a blessing. The ability to manufacture whatever one wants (so long as one has knowledge of CAD) means limitless opportunities for design and prototyping. So in a certain way, 3D printing is a revolution, just not one the masses are looking for.

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