24 Mar / After the peak, understanding 3D printing:
Where we are right now:
Those graphs are the stock markets in the last 5 years for the two biggest companies on 3D printing(Stratasys and 3D Systems).The trend is clear: after a peak of inflated expectation the market is contracting. And that is not necessarily bad, it needs a rethink.
Variability in each product unit: the added value.
3D printing introduces variability in each product: This means that each manufactured object is able to have different properties and geometries.
So whenever you are using Additive manufacturing technologies for a product it should take advantage of that value, looking for products that are not going to be equally replicated, or at least in a really small batch.
Because if your application does not make a good use of that value it will become a disadvantage.
Variability comes with a price:
The downsides of using additive manufacturing compared to for example injection molding, can be resumed in the following points:
- It is slower.
- It is more expensive.
- It is less precise.
That’s why additive manufacturing is not going to replace injection molding. As a manufacturing technique has its proper scale, that’s what Cris Anderson from 3D Robotics calls small batch in his book “Makers the new industrial revolution”:
“And these days, when anyone can get access to manufacturing and distribution, that is actually a viable choice. Wal-Mart, and all the compromise that comes with it, is no longer the only path to success. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets as ideas go straight into production…”
Tools for prototyping:
Product prototyping and development gets a lot of benefits from 3D printing as it offers a cheaper and faster ways to test and do proofs of concept.
And one big misunderstood is the consideration that the designer, maker and bricoleur market is going to expand into the mass consumer electronics market.
But finally we need to think on which are the current problems that such technology is going to solve in order to estimate its growth. Makers and innovators needs tools for prototyping, but the average citizen definitely not.
Materials and complex parts:
Since more and more patents on 3D printing are expiring, new techniques are becoming available, and one special case is the metal printing.
Also 3D printing can implement complex parts that otherwise would be very difficult to create by other means, but that’s also where 3D printing can strongly compete: in front of CNC milling and more specifically when it’s used for injection molding.
3D Printing moulds, finding the proper manufacturing scale:
Commonly the mass produced products are made using what it’s known as injection molding, as we mentioned before 3D printing can not compete directly with injection molding itself.
But 3D printing becomes really interesting when creating the moulds where the plastic or another material is going to be injected. Currently, CNC milling is being used for manufacturing the moulds, a subtractive manufacturing technique with high variability as well, but with several disadvatages and limitations that 3D printing can overcome.
When evaluating a new manufacturing technique it’s needed to clear out the concepts, it’s not the same additive VS substractive manufacturing, than high VS low variability. Additive manufacturing is a really interesting technology that will be progressively used in the actual mass production model, instead of replacing it, will improve it as it gets assembled into the supply chain: reducing the cost for production and accelerating the product development cycles.