3D printing is having a moment. There is a lot of talk about how cool it is, and for a reasonable amount of money anyone can buy a 3D printer for their house. Materials have also become significantly cheaper, allowing a much wider use of 3D printing technology.
So what is 3D printing?
It is an additive manufacturing technology wherein three dimensional shapes are constructed layer by layer. This allows a piece to be constructed with much greater accuracy and significant material savings.
However, the technology is still in its infancy, and the benefits are limited to a specific range of applications:
- Multi-material objects like complex composite parts; integrating conductive components into electronic and PCB prototypes.
- Intelligent geometries: 3D printing allows parts to be made lighter and with fewer parts, rendering the final product significantly more durable.
- Irregular shapes: Nearly any shape that can be designed in CAD can be 3D printed. Thus, the manufacturing process no longer determines the complexity of a shape. Now the desired functionality and design determine the outcome.
- Enclosures: 3D printing is excellent for producing boxes and protective enclosures. The single strand technology allows 3D printed enclosures to be significantly stronger and have fewer joints.
- Replacement parts: Breakages often mean that single, highly specific replacement parts are required. 3D printing is excellent in these circumstances as it allows highly precise production of small numbers of parts . The International Space Station has 3D printers on-board to replace malfunctioning parts for exactly this reason.
- Custom goods: Toys and props derived from computer games and movies, as well as jewellery, and one-off items.
- Art: 3D printing can create a range of unique geometries and is uniquely suited to produce pieces for fashion and art installations.
3D printing is an amazing technology for prototypes and small batches of parts because it is highly customisable and saves material costs. But it is not a magic pill for all problems. At least not yet.