The Past, Present and Future of 3D Printing and Manufacturing

by Christina Krenek

Whether you know it or not, 3D printing is reshaping the way many industries are operating and producing goods. From manufacturing, architecture, aerospace, engineering and automotive to medical devices, fashion, art and food – you name it – the use of 3D printing is becoming more popular in the way we do business and live our lives. It’s even named one of top 10 breakthrough technologies in 2013 from the MIT Technology Review.

What is 3D printing?

3D Printers by FASTSIGNS3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of making a three-dimensional object by adding sequential layers of the material together based from a digital model or virtual blueprints.  Despite the recent hype of 3D printing in the media, the concept has been around since the 1980s. In 1984, Charles Hull shared the idea of stereolithography, the oldest method of 3D printing, which uses the same concept of inkjet printers, except printing with layers of tangible materials instead of ink to create complex three-dimensional objects. Before stereolithography, prototypes and models took a lot of time and money to produce, which is why this method of “rapid prototyping” was so groundbreaking.

To see the history of 3D printing in an infographic, click here

As technology has tremendously advanced, so have 3D printers and their capabilities. Today, there are many processes and methods available. The main differences between printers are the way layers are deposited and the materials being used. A number of 3D printers use lasers to melt or soften a material to then layer it into the desired shape or object. The diverse materials that can be used is what makes 3D printing so applicable across so many industries, as manufacturers look to utilize it to streamline workflow in factories and improve workflow .

Although the price of 3D printers continues to decrease and 3D printing services is gaining popularity, there are both pros and cons when considering 3D printing. 

Pros: 

  • The 3D printing process can be used in any stage of the manufacturing process, from testing prototypes to customizing products or final production.
  • As mentioned above, 3D printing has drastically improved the time new products and parts are manufactured because prototypes can be created virtually overnight.
  • The fact that the designs are digital makes any changes and customizations quick and easy. A complex shape or object that once might have taken months to design and build could now take less than a week with 3D printing.    
  • Even though initial setup costs are high, the benefits and output can significantly reduce costs in the long-run because costs for labor, time and outsourcing will be greatly decreased. Experts have also forecasted that 3D printing will encourage local manufacturing, which will decrease the need for exporting production and boost local businesses.  
  • Products of 3D printing have been improving the quality of life: from medical devices like life-saving surgical devices , prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and bone replacements, to athletic performance gear and vehicle efficiency.    

Cons:

  • Materials are limited to whatever each 3D printer is capable of. In a video on Phys.org , Richard Hauge, Professor of Innovative Manufacturing at the University of Nottingham, explains how the main problem with additive manufacturing is that the material is being created at the point of manufacturing. While it creates a complex object faster, it also limits what the materials that can be used during one print.
  • There is also the fear that with the diversity of designs and products 3D printing can create will increase copyright issues and counterfeit products.

In response to the negative attention 3D printing has received, the Science Museum of London created a video series debunking the myths of 3D printing .

If you want to see some more amazing things that 3D printing can do, check out these articles:

What Can 3D Printing Do? Here are 6 Creative Examples

The Art of 3D Printing (photos)