Why 3D printing is the future

The potential for 3D printing and additive manufacturing is so profound that it could disrupt manufacturing as we know it. The most obvious change will be in local production, which could replace or displace traditional distributed manufacturing. Another significant change will be in the ability to individualize manufacturing.

Besides disrupting traditional manufacturing, 3D printing will be more sustainable by using materials that are not petrochemical in nature. New materials will be less expensive and easier to source, which will lower manufacturing costs. These lower costs will also impact storage, shipping, and transportation costs of materials.

Why 3D printing is the future

(Source: Unsplash)

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing is the process of building up layers of material — usually plastics or metal powder — to create an object. These objects can quite literally be anything. If a 3D model can be designed in software, it can be printed.

Why is additive manufacturing disruptive?

With traditional manufacturing, several steps are involved to imagine, design, and build products. First, a designer needs to create the blueprint. Next, an organization needs to get in touch with a factory and a material provider. The factory then produces a prototype for the device and returns it to the organization (which can take weeks, especially if the factory is overseas). If tweaks need to be made to the prototype, this process has to be repeated, turning weeks into months. Once it’s time for mass production, factory staff oversees production done ON an assembly line by either human or robot hands. The finished products are then shipped back to the organization.

Contrast that with additive manufacturing. Yes, a designer still needs to create a blueprint. But instead of reaching out to a factory to produce prototypes and handle mass production, both can be done in-house with a few 3D printers and the help of a plastic or metal powder distributor. Products can go from concept to on the market in a fraction of the time it used to take.

Factories will always be present for mass production for smaller organizations that can’t do their own manufacturing, but the ability to produce prototypes without outsourcing is a massive time-saver for companies.

Sustainable production

One of the best parts of 3D printing is that it’s incredibly versatile in what materials you can use. That means transitioning away from unsustainable manufacturing processes to more sustainable ones without necessarily needing new equipment — something that companies are under more and more pressure to do.

Right now, the biggest environmental hurdle for metal additive manufacturing is the atomization process for powder. The two primary forms of atomization — gas and plasma — use tremendous amounts of energy, a huge blow to environmental friendliness.

However, new processes are being developed to solve this challenge. For example, variants of microwave-based plasma atomization can recycle already-used materials with near-100% yield rates while using less power than gas or plasma atomization. Resins are also being developed to help safely store and recycle metal condensate, reducing the waste we create. You can even create recycled plastic filament at home.

All of these techniques allow us to use the piles of wasted materials we have domestically without needing to rely on overseas production and mining. What you get is a sustainable production loop, with companies buying materials made using additive manufacturing waste, 3D printing their products, then selling their new waste back to recycled powder producers.

Plus, bio-based materials like PA11, made from castor seeds and oil, are becoming more common. That means less metal mining and manufacturing of plastics. The future of 3D printing is going to utilize a wide variety of materials.

Smart manufacturing

Emerging trends include customization of additive manufacturing in an organization’s workflow. At this stage of development, companies are still trying to understand how to incorporate 3D printing alongside existing technologies. Machine learning could play a role in correcting errors and mistakes in the production process as it happens without human monitoring. This “smart manufacturing” will noticeably improve productivity, scale, and processes used to create products across industries.

Medical application

If we look even further into the future, we will see 3D printing incorporated more into the biomedical industry. In fact, it’s already happening — being able to print patient-specific implants and devices (known as bioprinting) is no longer just a dream; it’s the next frontier. New materials being developed can help administer drugs, create tissue, and eventually be able to print implantable organs.

The future of 3D printing is bright

3D printing is the future. A future that has lasting impacts on sustainability and eliminating waste. The growth of 3D printing or additive manufacturing has been astonishing. What started as the printing of simple 3D figurines has become a new groundbreaking technology used across industries and academia.

Today, we can see new materials and atomization processes being formed that are better for the planet. The medical sector is using 3D printing to produce patient-specific implants and devices. And prototyping will be able to be done in-house as opposed to relying on overseas factories. The more advancements we make, the clearer it is that the future is built on additive manufacturing

About the author

Jordan McDowell is a writer and content strategist. He specializes in technically-oriented B2B and B2C content for a number of digital companies.