Why 3D Printing Is and Isn’t the Next Big Thing

March 26th, 2013:

It seems that these days nearly everyone (including certain engineers) is talking about 3D printing, rapid prototyping and its future. It’s a popular topic, and recently people have been singing the praises of the technology a little louder than usual. It seems that you can’t go far without reading stories of how you will 3D print your next car, 3D print replacement parts for your dishwasher, etc... This trend of overzealously hyping 3D printing was even apparent in the stock market, where market leader 3D Systems gained 200% in a year, only to sharply decline amongst articles asking “Is 3D printing a bubble?” My answer to that question is a definitive “Yes and No”.

                My take is that people mistake 3D printing for the whole toolbox and not just 1 tool within it. Due to the massive rise in computer technology over the last 30 years, everyone is looking to be the first to discover the next personal computer. Because of the close relationship between PCs and printers, it is only natural for people to latch onto the idea that 3D Printers will be the next technology to revolutionize our lives.

                The problem with that thought process is that rapid prototyping technology is not a cure-all but instead has unique strengths and weaknesses. The part of the 3D printing bubble that does exist is when people trying to shoe horn 3D printing solutions into problems that don’t call for it.  It is merely a great tool to help tackle some problems. As the name implies, the technology is incredibly useful for rapidly creating prototypes of objects with minimal human effort. However, the nature of the process means the final part does not have the same mechanical properties as an injection molded or machined part.

                This trade-off is what most often seems to be overlooked. Yes we can do things that are impossible with other machines, but we also can’t do things are much easier with traditional machines. The ability to transition 3D CAD geometry to 3D physical part in 4 hours is fast when your concept is changing every day. It doesn’t seem so fast when the CAD hasn’t changed for 3 years and you realize that you need to make 40,000 parts a year. As stated earlier, 3D printing is simply a tool in the toolbox. Rapid prototyping technology can be thought about in the same way one would think about traditional CNC machines. Such technology is incredible useful, but at the same time it is only an incremental step away from what came before it.  We will continue to find new ways to make use of additive manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to print their next cell phone at home.