3D Printing: What is it actually good for?

We are in the middle of a 3D printing hype, with technologies, materials and platforms becoming more and more accessible and affordable in order to spread the technology into studios, offices, schools and homes all around the globe. As appealing as it may seem to invest in a 3D printer, now is the time to take a critical look at 3D printing and evaluate what its true value can be and what we truly need it for.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing technique, constructing three-dimensional objects layer-by-layer. These are some inherent pros and cons vs. other manufacturing techniques:

Additive Subtractive
(CNC, cutting, lathing etc.)
Mold-based
(injection / vacuum / rotation / blow molding)
Craft
Part complexity ++ 0 – – ++
Surface finish – – ++ ++ ++
Lead time ++ + 0
Build time small object 0 ++
Build time large object – – – – ++ – – –
Available materials – – ++ + ++
Fixed costs per product ++ + +
Durability – – + + ++
DIY suitability + 0 1 ++
Batch suitability – – ++ – –

There are various processes to 3D print objects, the most important ones being:

  • FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) / FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling where a strand of material is released onto a building platform and partially fuses together with the already deposited material. This technology enables low-power and low-budget solutions so anyone can start 3D printing for a few hundred dollars. There are plenty of resources and materials available to print a plethora of objects. How about your own cookie cutters, glow-in-the-dark personalized wall hooks, or wooden sculptures? The most important downsides of this technology are part strength, surface quality and print deformations/failures since prints are constructed in the air from a print bed upwards and therefore are vulnerable to influences such as support structure, bed adhesion, fluctuations in room temperature and ventilation as well as in the flow of material. Also prints can take much longer than expected and operating and maintaining the machine is not as straightforward as it may seem.
  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) / SLM (Selective Laser Melting) / EBM (Electron Beam Melting) where a laser successively melts precisely targeted areas in layers of a powder bed. This is good for creating strong parts with complex geometries, thin walls and a nice surface finish. Part deformations are minimal since the printed objects are supported by the surrounding powder. Materials range from metals, engineering plastics, flexible materials and ceramics. These machines cost many thousands of dollars, the cheapest ones coming at $10k, they are mostly used by engineering firms and online 3D printing fulfilment services.
  • SLA (Stereolithography) printers transform liquid resin into solids using light. Imagine a pool being filled in steps, and after each step a part of the liquid inside is hardened by a light from above.The unique advantages are precise and strong parts with an excellent surface finish and low-power operation. Objects need to remain connected to the bottom of the pool so freehanging parts are not possible. Also the material is expensive, limited in range and liquid so not as suitable for home use as compared to FFF.

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An excellent article was recently published on the Toptal engineering blog (1), offering a critical look at the potential of 3D printing for developers. The author makes a good point:

3D printing is not going mainstream any time soon, if at all. The technology is immature, build speed remains slow, part quality is unregulated, aesthetics hardly curated, and there are only a few niches of applications that offer significant value to have customers invest in the technology. As far as home printing goes, it is mostly for the hobbyist who does it out of a love for his or her craft.

The following niches are where the true value of 3D printing lies:

  • Multi-material objects such as gradual transitions in flexibility, complex composite parts, and the integration of conductive materials to create electronic components and PCB prototypes. For example, for the Ara project Google partnered with 3D Systems to integrate conductive components into the phone housing.
  • Small-batch manufacturing of up to 1,000 pieces may prove competitive in price and lead time compared to other manufacturing processes. It is recommendable to use an online fulfillment service since they will offer economy of scale, good quality, better lead time when compared to using a non-professional 3D printer and developers have the ability to integrate an API into their website so as to automate the order and delivery process.
  • Intelligent geometries which save weight and enable part count reduction. An example is GE’s titanium fuel injection nozzle for its next generation CFM LEAP turbofan engine. 3D printing allowed it to be constructed 25 percent lighter and 1 piece instead of an assembly of 18 parts, making a 5 times more durable part.
  • Tailoring of clothing, sports equipment and medical parts such as prostheses, joints and training models.
  • Customized goods such as modular toys derived from computer games and movies, jewelry, fashion and household appliances. See (2) for a more in-depth study.
  • Art. 3D printing affords unique geometries to render any object, be it fashion, furniture or food, into a reproducible work that can be sold as art. There are opportunities for online platforms, that instead of offering an enormous quantity of unchallenged objects, pursue a highly curated approach with only a select number of submitted objects, after careful review and testing, make it to online status.
  • Replacement parts. For example, for NASA, having 3D printers on-board to replace malfunctioning parts can prove critical.

If you are considering investing in 3D printing, my advice is:

If you want to invest in a home-based 3D printer, have a specific long-term plan for it. Even 3D printing simple objects may prove not very easy since you will have to learn a lot about the machine you are working with. This is a manufacturing machine more so than a consumer appliance like your inkjet printer. Also the material is better compared to a porous wood than to a molded plastic. The quality of available items is not regulated so it may not be safe, durable, usable or printable at all. The ratio of failed prints is very high so for some items you may have to tweak and reprint a dozen times. If you have to modify or create 3D models, you will need to learn to use various software programs that require users to practice for months. So if you are only thinking of occasionally printing something, use an online service or contact a local designer.

If you are a school, minimize the amount of 3D printers you invest in and go for quality and versatility. A 3D printer in every classroom is not necessary. If you are considering purchasing several small 3D printers, instead consider to buy one large 3D printer with multi-material option, more durable construction and better build time and quality. It is better to have one 3D printer in a central workshop location since then one person can be assigned to handle and maintain the machine, students will learn to make best use of it and plan their creative endeavors well because of its scarce availability, and no waste products will enter the classrooms. For printing educative objects 3D printing is excellent, but it can also be done on a single printer during the weekends or holidays or done by an external service or your local designer.

If you are an entrepreneur developing your own product, be prepared for the necessity have several prototypes created, in some cases hundreds, before a satisfactory quality is reached. If there are significant challenges in your product design process, be it mechanical or visual (such as in transportation, product and character design), it will in many cases be worth investing in a 3D printer since every physical prototype is worth much more than a sketch to serve as a tool for discussion. Instead of having your designer send the prototypes to you, it is of great value to be able to print the same model as your designer at the same time and discuss it the next day.

If you are a designer, I recommend you to invest in a 3D printer since it will enrich your practice and allow you to do some prototyping. Even if it is a limited amount of prototyping, it will give you more insight into your own work if you can make your results tangible. In most fields, such as toy design, character design, game design, graphic design, industrial or interaction design, there are substantial benefits to integrating a 3D printer into the workflow.

In case you want to use 3D printing to manufacture your products, realize that there are many untapped opportunities as well as challenges where you will need professional developers with experience in design and 3D printing. For most projects I recommend investing in a 3D printer for early prototyping and doing quick tests, since this can provide critical information already early on in the process. I recommend making the step to using the printer to be used for the manufacturing stage early on in the process as well since many iterations may be needed. If you plan to have an online sales platform where products can be customized, I recommend hiring a professional with experience not just in web design, but also in user interaction, experience or interactive product design since online customization adds some extra challenges in development and interface design. You can view customization not just as an addition but as a paradigm change in that you are not selling products, but also the data behind these products, which are to a specific extent accessible, and with that come some fundamental questions about the relationship between your company and your customers.

In conclusion, the main points of this post are that investing in 3D printing is in many cases not what you want to do since the real potential of 3D printing is limited to a very specific range of niches, that within these niches there is a lot of room for further development and unique value to be created, and that this may require the coming together of people from multiple disciplines.

  1. https://www.toptal.com/designers/print/3d-printing-for-developers
  1. Reeves, P. and Mendis, D. (2015). The Current Status and Impact of 3D Printing Within the Industrial Sector: An Analysis of Six Case Studies. The Intellectual Property Office, UK: Newport.
  2. Designsoul. Creative studio specialized in product development and 3D printing.