3D Printing Pros and Cons

As the 3D printing industry continues to grow, it has proven to be a valuable tool for manufacturers. It has the potential to reduce waste, increase production speeds and lower manufacturing costs. The applications of 3D printing span industries as diverse as health care and aviation, but that doesn’t mean 3D printing is the best solution for all manufacturers. Companies must weigh the benefits and limitations of 3D printing to determine if it is the right choice for their manufacturing needs.

What Is the Purpose of 3D Printing?

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing allows manufacturers to produce 3D physical objects from digital files. These parts, tools or components are created by a 3D printer that deposits thin layers of material on top of one another to build an object. The printing process can be performed with plastics, metals and other materials to create complex shapes and geometries.

When used in manufacturing, 3D printing can replace traditional techniques for creating parts and prototypes, such as machining or injection molding, to produce these parts more quickly. Many manufacturers have begun implementing 3D printing to streamline and accelerate production processes. The printed pieces also offer exceptional strength and durability, making them versatile for many industrial purposes. The process is particularly beneficial for small batch production, as it can reduce lead times and cut production costs significantly.

Since the beginning of 3D printing in the mid-1980s, the additive manufacturing industry has grown substantially. Printing in 3D is now possible with more diverse materials than ever before, and these printers can build much larger items than once imagined. Across industries, 3D printing is expanding the possibilities of production, resulting in everything from 3D-printed clothing and shoes to real human tissues printed using living cells. As its technology continues to advance, it will likely find new and greater uses in manufacturing.

How Is 3D Printing Used Today?

A diverse range of industries currently uses 3D printing. From building race cars to producing prosthetic limbs, the technology continues to change the face of production and manufacturing. Here are some of the modern applications of 3D printing:

  • Automotive: Replacing heavy metal parts with lightweight 3D-printed components can increase the speed of race cars and motorcycles while improving their fuel efficiency. Engineers can also test new designs with 3D-printed models. Further, mechanics can use 3D printers to produce replacement parts as they need them instead of carrying a large inventory of spare parts.
  • Aviation: Airplane parts printed in 3D can be used to produce lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft. They have also been used for building airplanes’ overhead compartments and other aircraft features.
  • Aerospace: Aerospace engineers can create lightweight yet durable shielding for space shuttles using 3D printing with metal. Satellites and space stations can also use 3D printers to produce custom tools and replacement parts for repairing aerospace equipment.
  • Consumer goods: A 3D printer can produce many end-user products, including jewelry, accessories, toys, figurines, lighting fixtures and furniture. With 3D printers available for domestic use, consumers can even print many of their own goods and products at home.
  • Health care: Engineers in the medical field have pioneered innovative uses of 3D printing, including customized prosthetics, dentures, retainers, implants, hearing aids and more. Surgeons utilize exact replica 3D-printed models to practice complex surgeries or transplants.
  • Architecture: Architects have relied on 3D printing for decades to quickly produce sophisticated scale models of buildings, bridges and other architectural features. As one of the first industries to adopt the technology, architecture continues to benefit from new developments in 3D printing, such as the recent ability to print buildings with concrete in 3D.
  • Fashion and art: Some designers and artists have experimented with incorporating 3D-printed pieces into clothing and sculpture. In mainstream fashion, 3D printing has also been used to create shoe soles.
  • Food: Any food that can be turned into a puree or paste can be crafted into unique designs with specialized 3D food printers. Creative restaurants have capitalized on this ability to create one-of-a-kind desserts, pastries and other food products.

These uses of 3D printing only skim the surface of its applications across industries. It has also been used to create movie props, replicate artifacts in archaeology and improve education in STEM subjects.

How Will 3D Printing Be Used in the Future?

In the future, the applications of 3D printing for both prototypes and end-use products will continue to expand.

Concrete 3D printing has been heralded as a potential solution for fighting homelessness in impoverished nations and restoring communities after a natural disaster. Engineers can use 3D printing technology to build small concrete homes for little cost. The design firm Fuseproject, along with sustainable building startup Icon and non-profit housing charity New Story, recently announced plans to 3D print homes for a community of farmers in Latin America. They will build each of the 600- to 800-square-foot homes in a single day.

In the medical field, cutting-edge bioprinting enables scientists to 3D print human tissues by layering living cells onto a gel-based medium. The bioprinting industry was valued at 385.5 million in 2018 and is predicted to grow substantially in coming years due to government support and technological advancements. While bioprinting is currently only used to create simple tissues like cartilage, scientists are developing methods to 3D print organs with complex vascular networks. These 3D printed organs use a patient’s unique DNA and could drastically alter how surgeons perform organ transplants in the future.

The 3D printing industry as a whole shows promise for growth in the coming years. The Wohlers Report 2019 forecasts that revenue for all additive manufacturing services and products will reach 35.6 billion in 2024 — more than doubling the predicted 15.8 billion in revenue in 2020.

3D Printing Pros

The 3D printing industry offers many advantages for manufacturers as its possibilities constantly expand. It can reduce lead times, cut transportation and logistics costs and shift production from centralized factories to individual facilities. By considering the following benefits of 3D printing, manufacturers can decide if the process is right for their company.

  • Provides Faster Prototyping

Manufacturers can use 3D printers to create prototypes for parts or tools much more quickly than they could with traditional methods. This process — called rapid prototyping — allows engineers to turn digital designs into physical scale models in a matter of hours.

Instead of sending out for a specialized mold, manufacturers can fabricate highly accurate prototypes in-house using 3D printers. Creating a prototype with a 3D printer may only take a few hours, while casting or machining a prototype would be much more time-consuming and labor-intensive. It also enables manufacturers to build complex and intricate prototypes without tedious tooling or careful molding.

Rapid prototyping significantly reduces lead times and speeds up revenue flow. When manufacturers can produce prototypes more quickly, they can gain client approvals on designs more quickly as well. Faster approvals mean production can begin sooner, and the final product can be delivered to the client in much less time. Shorter lead times also boost customer satisfaction.

If the design needs to be changed after the initial prototype is delivered, 3D printing makes it easy to modify plans and create new prototypes. Because manufacturers can create prototypes quickly and inexpensively with 3D printing, they can experiment with several different design iterations until they find the perfect solution.

  • Enables Decentralization

Using 3D printers, manufacturers can produce parts and tools in-house, which enables decentralization. Instead of storing replacement parts in distribution centers and transporting parts long distances, 3D printing allows manufacturers to create the parts they need on-site or closer to their end-use destination. The decentralization of parts production benefits manufacturing companies in many ways by reducing transportation costs and overall logistics expenses.

One of the most significant applications of 3D printing for manufacturers is the ability to 3D print replacement parts on-demand. Manufacturers must maintain an inventory of replacement parts both for their customers and for their own machines. If a machine breaks down, having the right part available enables fast repair and minimal downtime.

However, storing replacement parts requires space, which can cost a significant amount of money. Replacement parts must often be transported from off-site warehouses, which drives up transportation costs and increases downtime during repairs. Additionally, replacement parts may not be usable anymore if they are stored for too long — they can degrade due to environmental factors or become outdated due to equipment updates. Storing a large inventory of replacement parts can result in wasted logistics spending and wasted materials.

With 3D printing, replacement parts can be stored as digital files in computers rather than in warehouse boxes. Production centers can print new parts on-site as needed, which significantly reduces storage requirements, lowers shipping expenses and optimizes resource use. As machinery is updated, designs for parts can be adjusted to match new equipment functionalities, reducing wasted resources.

  • Creates Less Material Waste

Because 3D printing is an additive process, it can significantly reduce manufacturing waste. Traditional machining cuts and chisels parts out of solid blocks of material, resulting in waste that cannot always be recycled. Instead, 3D printing uses only the materials necessary to produce a part and creates virtually zero waste. With this technology, manufacturers only need to order the amount of material they need for each piece, which lowers resource costs.

  • Enables Small-Batch and Custom Production

If manufacturers need to produce a custom product or small quantity of parts, 3D printing makes the process faster and more affordable. Instead of creating a custom mold for a limited batch of tools or a specialized piece, a manufacturer can simply produce a new digital model. They can then adjust this design as much as necessary before using it to print the final product. Manufacturers can deliver custom products more quickly to increase client satisfaction.

Creating a new product is also simplified with 3D printing. Rather than adding new machinery to their production line, manufacturers can program a new design into their 3D printers and starting making new parts.

  • Produces Lighter and Stronger Products

In addition to streamlining manufacturing processes, 3D printing can also improve the final product. Because the printer uses lightweight yet durable polymers, its products are often lighter and stronger than the metal pieces they are replacing. The technology also makes it possible to incorporate hollow spaces and honeycomb structures inside of parts to provide the same stability as traditional parts with a significant weight reduction.

These benefits have made 3D printing particularly popular in the automotive and aerospace industries. Lightweight parts produced with 3D printing can reduce the weight of race cars and racing motorcycles to increase their speed. When used in vehicles designed for consumers, 3D-printed parts improve fuel efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. The same is true for airplanes with 3D printed components — by reducing the weight of their aircraft, airlines can save on fuel costs, reduce emissions and earn higher revenue.

In many instances, 3D-printed plastic parts can be used to replace metal ones. However, in applications where metal parts are necessary, 3D printing can still offer weight-reducing benefits. It can produce metal components with complex structures like honeycombs and with cutouts and hollow spaces that are difficult to achieve with traditional molds. The resulting part is lighter yet just as strong as the original component.

  • Allows Greater Design Freedom

Compared to traditional manufacturing techniques like machining, molding and casting, 3D printing offers greater design flexibility. With conventional methods, manufacturers may face challenges cutting out minuscule openings or casting delicate parts. Some geometries cannot be produced with molds or dies, requiring the assembly of several pieces together.

With 3D printing, manufacturers can produce intricately shaped pieces with complex geometries to suit any application. They can also create a single component where traditional manufacturing would require an assembly of parts, which can streamline the production process and create a stronger final product.

3D Printing Cons

Although 3D printing offers many benefits for manufacturers, it may not be suited for all applications. The materials available for 3D printing are still somewhat limited, and 3D printing is not viable for large-scale production. It also has other limitations, such as product size, post-processing requirements and consumer safety concerns. Before incorporating 3D printing into your manufacturing process, consider these limitations of 3D printing to decide if it is still your ideal solution.

  • Small Number of Materials

Although 3D printing has come a long way since its inception, it is still limited to a small number of materials. Many 3D printers can only be used with polymers — such as Polylactic Acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) or Polypropylene (PP) — to produce plastic products. Depending on the type of 3D printer, these polymers can be fed into the printer as filament, polymer powder or liquid resin. Plastics remain the most widely used material for 3D printing and are typically the most affordable.

Some specialized 3D printers can be used with certain metals, including titanium, maraging steel and stainless steel. This is made possible through a sintering process using metal powders or fused filaments. While the ability to 3D print with metals has opened the door for new applications in manufacturing, these printers are still relatively expensive and can be a significant investment for manufacturers. Some metals are also better-suited for 3D printing than others, which limits its manufacturing applications.

Some ceramics, concrete, paper and some edible materials can also be employed in certain 3D printers, but these applications are not as widely used. Concrete 3D printing has been used to build houses, and 3D printing with paper enables full-color paper models to be produced from paper pulp. Specialized 3D printers can also be used to create edible products out of chocolate, sugar, and food purees or pastes. However, 3D printed food is primarily found in innovative restaurants and is not produced on a large scale.

  • Size Restrictions

The technology is also limited in the size of the products it can create. Most 3D printers have fairly small build chambers — even those designed for industrial applications. While these printers are still able to produce a wide range of useful parts, tools and components, any parts larger than the build chamber must be printed in pieces and assembled. This increases production time, as multiple designs must be created to produce a single component. Constructing the final product also requires additional time and manual labor.

Large industrial 3D printers have been designed, such as GE Additive’s Concept Laser, which the company used to produce a jet engine fuel nozzle in one piece. Other companies have invested in large 3D printers to make furniture and large models or prototypes. However, these can be extremely expensive and may not be feasible for most companies.

  • Volume Limitations

Although 3D printers can produce individual parts and small batches more quickly than traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing is not well-suited for mass production. Generally speaking, injection molding or another traditional process will be more cost-effective if a manufacturer needs to produce more than a few hundred units of a part, despite higher upfront costs. While 3D printers provide advantages for custom and specialized components, traditional methods are still more efficient for large-scale production needs.

  • Post-Production Processing

As mentioned above, creating large components with 3D printing may require the pieces to be printed individually and then assembled in post-processing. However, smaller 3D printed parts may also require some post-production processing to create the desired finish.

Because 3D-printed parts are made by depositing material in layers, the edges of the final product will not be perfectly smooth even if these layers are paper-thin. If parts require exceptional smoothness — such as for applications that require very low friction — the product will need to be finished. Depending on the material, this may include sanding or polishing.

Some 3D printers may also leave support material attached to the product, which needs to be removed in post-production processing. This excess material may be cut away or removed with a water jet.

In 3D printing using liquid resin, some resin may remain on the surface of the product after it is printed. If this resin hardens, it will create imperfections on the piece’s surface and may distort the shape of small or precise parts. To remove any resin deposit, manufacturers may need to finish the product with a chemical soak and rinse.

How much processing a part requires post-production depends on its end use, its size and the type of 3D printer used. Different 3D printing techniques require different post-production processing, which may be more or less time-intensive. However, some kind of post-production processing should always be taken into account when considering any 3D printing manufacturing application.

  • Consumer Safety

In some applications, 3D printing may pose some consumer safety concerns. For example, 3D-printed parts or tools used in the medical field must be sterile and sanitary. As medical engineers experiment with using 3D printing to create human body parts and organs, they must ensure these products are safe for transplants. In food production applications, 3D-printed food products must meet safety standards for human consumption.

The accessibility of 3D printers also opens the door for consumers to produce virtually anything they want — including dangerous items. With a 3D printer and design software, consumers can 3D print knives, firearms or other weapons without any regulation. For example, a man in Texas was recently sentenced to jail for 3D printing a gun after he was previously banned from possessing a firearm.

Establishing regulations and standards for 3D printing also poses challenges for government officials. Despite imposing laws against 3D printing dangerous products, effectively enforcing these regulations may prove very difficult.

  • Counterfeit Goods

The accessibility of 3D printing also enables the production of counterfeit products — ranging from fake brand-name goods to faulty medical tools. By using a 3D scanner to create digital design files, a person could create an exact replica of a product with a 3D printer. A hacker could also create counterfeit products by stealing a digital design file for a 3D-printed object directly from the manufacturer. The forged item would be indistinguishable from the original, making it nearly impossible to identify real from fake.

While this reproduction is limited to products made of materials available for 3D printing, the potential production of counterfeit goods still poses a threat to manufacturers and brands. If faulty counterfeit products caused harm to the consumer, the manufacturer could be held liable — even if the goods were actually fake. If someone creates copies of highly coveted or popular brand items, the sale of these counterfeit goods could also undermine profits for the actual supplier.

Because 3D printing is a relatively new technology, regulations surrounding the production of 3D-printed goods are still evolving. Manufacturers must take precautions to protect their design files and property.

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The advantages of additive manufacturing have led to creative applications of 3D printing in production and other industries. However, 3D printing still poses some challenges and has many areas for growth. As the industry continues to develop, your company can keep up with the latest 3D printing technologies by subscribing to the Global Electronic Services blog. Enter your email address in the sidebar to receive notifications about new developments in 3D printing, lean manufacturing, equipment maintenance and more.

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