3D printers simplify the process of making parts without incurring the historical costs of building out prototypes. How will it affect manufacturing?
It’s hard not to get caught up in all the buzz around 3D printers; the capabilities only continue to intensify with new printing materials or mediums added to the list on an almost daily basis. In fact, 3D printers can even print using edible starches to make, for instance, custom designed candies. The possibilities have very few limitations, especially considering the momentum attached to this relatively new technology. As this evolution continues to gain steam, it is going to have a significant impact on the manufacturing sector as a whole.
According to a recent Forbes article, 3D printing’s impact on global manufacturing is already evident. Specifically, the report calls out true rapid prototyping, rapid product iteration, low-volume production capabilities, mass customization, virtual inventory, and a product innovation renaissance as most significant. It states that, “3D production of functional end-use parts is already one of the fastest growing areas in the manufacturing sector. In 2014, a PWC survey found that 11 percent of manufacturing companies had already switched to volume production of 3D printed parts or products. As costs continue to drop and quality rises, it will be impossible to put this genie back in the bottle.”
However, the key point Forbes author Rick Smith makes is that 3D printing is making noticeable moves outside of only enabling organizations to make prototypes. Industry Week reiterates that organizations are already using 3D printing as a means for creating lightweight production parts as well as time-sensitive components needed within the health care sector. Perhaps the largest impact is that 3D printing is forcing manufacturing organizations to rethink their operations and look for ways to incorporate printing capabilities into their product and service offering. Since industry trends often directly influence product development, those who provide manufacturing services should stay current and work to tailor these processes to start meeting the needs of these industries.
Some of the most notable impacts of 3D printing also have the potential to lead to significantly positive outcomes — at least long term — for the U.S.-based manufacturing sector. Perhaps the biggest benefit of 3D printers is the simplicity of making a wide array of parts without incurring the historical costs of building out prototypes. Simply put, once a product is engineered, it’s possible to print the final product without anywhere near the same effort. Historically, this required writing an array of programs, building jigs, and models before enduring costly piecemeal machining. Understandably, the need for extensive prototyping will remain intact for a number of critical components, yet 3D printing offers an attractive alternative.
In addition, the growth of 3D printers has sparked a renewed interest in manufacturing. This is a huge boom for talent-starved markets who often resort to outsourcing and off-shoring as a means of making up for the shortfall. This interest is evident in the popularity of Maker Faire events throughout the country that often draw thousands of youth interested in learning more about how to design and ultimately produce their own products — essentially turning their ideas into realities.