3D printing has been widely used for decades for prototyping and development, but its high cost, inferior material quality and surface finish has prevented it from revolutionizing manufacturing. But over the last few years, the technology has rapidly matured and the industry has started taking ground in manufacturing in some very impressive ways.

Advantages of 3D printing over other manufacturing processes:

No Tooling Cost:

Tooling costs can be a tremendous barrier when entering production. It is not uncommon to need tens of thousands of dollars in tooling just to make just a few simple parts. Not only does tooling require a lot of money, but it can take a several weeks and even months to make. Additionally, since is often very expensive to modify the tooling, the design team must finalize the part design before production. This presents an opportunity cost that prevents a design from being as good as it could be because it simply because of the cost to make improvements.

Since 3D printing gives the ability to quickly produce functional, end-use parts without little to no tooling costs, designs can quickly be produced, tested and improved with minimal cost. We use Shapeways, an online shop for 3D printed products, to test products in the marketplace. Click here to see our Shapeways store.

Balloon Flyers are 3D printed to order on Shapeways.com. They are make from nylon plastics.

Low Run Production to Mitigate Risk:

The per unit cost of 3D printed parts is quite a bit more than with traditional manufacturing processes. This means that while you are saving thousands of dollars up-front, there will hopefully be a point where it makes sense to switch traditional manufacturing. So 3D printing end-use parts can be a great way to test the market and ensure your product is the best it can be before making the investment into traditional manufacturing to increase your profit margin.

Formlabs has an affordable, high-resolution desktop 3D printed with materials that are suitable for mold making. Using these materials, molds can be 3D printed, which are then used to cast parts in production materials. They even have a 3D printable material that is suitable for making low-run plastic injection molds.

Injection Molds Made Using Formlabs 3D Printer. [Image Courtesy of Formlabs.com]

Mass Customization:

Mass production gave humanity an abundance of goods, but at the cost of standardization. But since people are diverse and unique, standardization is a compromise to make things affordable, but not necessarily optimal for any particular person. The goal of mass customization is that products can be mass produced but with a custom-fit at affordable prices. With 3D printing, every object can be unique without an increase in the cost to make.

Adidias has partnered with a company called Carbon to produce 3D printed shoes. Each shoe can be custom fit to the buyer’s foot. Even the left and the right shoe can be custom fit. Other companies are exploring 3D printed prosthetics, jewelry and even guitars.

3D Printed Guitars

Complex Geometries:

3D printing technologies often allow for complex geometries to be created. They can create nested and interlocking components, like chainmail, and parts with internal passageways for fluids and complex structures for biologically-inspired structures. Lightweight structural components and even rocket engine components can be made that are designed to perform optimally for their purpose, not compromised to fit the constraints of the manufacturing process. With this design freedom, sometime complex assemblies can be simplified to just a single component.

Biologically-Inspired Motorcycle Frame, 3D Printed in Aluminum.

Although 3D printing is still a long way from supplanting traditional manufacturing processes, it is beginning to prove itself as a useful technology and should be considered as a tool to bring new products to market.

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