Will 3d Printing Replace Traditional Manufacturing?


3d printing is the new technology that’s taken industrial, commercial and consumer imaginations and run with them. Is it the replacement for heavy industry and manufacturing plants? Is there a need for a Walmart or other department stores if you can make everything at home?

Traditional Plastic Injection Mold in Injection Machine

3d printing has enhanced industrial and commercial prototyping, and has created some demand in the consumer sphere. 3d printing is not a replacement for traditional manufacturing and won’t be until it can produce items quickly, reliably, with high quality and in a myriad of materials. We can do any one of these things now, but we can’t do them all with 3d printing. Traditional manufacturing can, and can scale to large production volumes.

Let’s look at each of these attributes and figure out where 3d printing fits in, and what’s going to happen to traditional manufacturing now that 3d printing has arrived.

Quality of Production – 3d Printing Versus Manufacturing

3d printers are capable of producing some excellent quality items. Even home 3d DLP resin printers can produce items with a z-axis height of 0.025mm. That’s fine enough that you can make out facial detail on a figurine of a person that’s only an inch tall. For hobbyists, this can be exactly what they want. They may only want one or five of an object, and never want another one of those objects. So, for home use, 3d printing may be a smart idea. 

Items like toys, buttons, handles for kitchen drawers, phone cases, pieces for games, and even small mechanical items all make sense with 3d printing for personal use. The quality is good enough if you stick to the few plastics that will 3d print.

Manufacturing can produce excellent quality every time, on a large scale. Instead of one type of manufacturing (the 3d print) that 3d printers use, traditional manufacturing can cover the gamut of injection plastics, metal casting, welding, forging, milling, lathing, automated assembly, and the list goes on. While it’s technically feasible to print a full-sized car, it’s not likely that you will. The super-smooth surfaces of your car’s plastic panels are not capable of being produced on a 3d printer without additional finishing steps. You’ll have to file, sand and seal the part, where manufacturing can produce it in one process.

You can easily produce a perfectly smooth sphere in plastic, metal, rubber or glass with traditional manufacturing. You can get a sphere in any of these items with 3d printing, but you’ll have to finish the items after manufacture to get the finish that you’re looking for. So as long as 3d printers use layers to produce an item, there is room for traditional manufacturing from the point of view of quality.

Quantity of Production – 3d Printing Versus Manufacturing

3d printing can produce a usable item in three to 30 hours, give or take. Some flat items can be produced in an hour, while other complex items may need three days to be produced. So if you need 10 of an item that takes three days to produce, the earliest you could have them is a month from now, assuming you can start today. Printing an 11th is no faster than the first one, so you can’t speed up when you get more experience.

Traditional printing, however, once tooled up and ready for production, can crank out anything from a few a day to thousands, or even higher! A scale model tank takes me 10 hours to print on my AnyCubic Photon DLP resin 3d printer. So ten of them would take 100 hours, and likely longer. A plastic model manufacturer can load up an injection casting machine and crank out 10 model tanks on the sprue in under three minutes. It took a lot of equipment and expense to get ready for that production, but once it’s there, the manufacturing takes mere moments. Even something as complex as a car can be assembled from manufactured parts in less than a half a day!

If you’re needing a part or product that will be nationally or internationally purchased, then you’re going to need more production than what 3d printers can do for you. Even a room of 50 3d printers can’t match the production quantity of a single injection casting machine. Depending on your market, you may need thousands, or hundreds of thousands of your items right at the launch of the product. Imagine producing a new widget that you want to have in every Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, and DIY Hardware stores across the United States. You’re likely going to need a ton, and all on the same day! Traditional manufacturing was built to do just this.

Speed to Production – 3d Printing Versus Manufacturing

This is where 3d printing shines. You can create a 3d model in a 3d sculpting software or a computer aided design (CAD) software, take it over to your 3d printer and be producing minutes after completing the design. For small scale manufacturing of specialty items, this may be all that’s needed. In the world where companies are very agile, creating items quickly, and changing them frequently is an asset. 3d printing offers that.

Some traditional manufacturers take years to set up production for an item that 3d printing did in several days. In that two years, the world may have changed and the product, designed for two years ago, may not be as viable as it was back when it was designed. It is a definite advantage to get to market quickly with an item. And if you’re going to fail with a product, failing fast and moving on to the next iteration or item can be very valuable, too. Fail quickly is possible in manufacturing with 3d printing.

If you’re making phone cases, you can’t wait for a year to produce it. Some phones don’t last that long on the market! But you’ll want more phone cases than a 3d printer, or even a fleet of 3d printers, can produce. The same design process that gets you an STL file for 3d printing can also produce different files for cutting aluminum blocks for injection casting of plastic or rubber. The molds can then be used for rapid manufacture. The price for this process is far higher than with 3d printing, but it gets you thousands of parts in weeks or, at worst, a month. Those up-front costs eat into your profits, but a smaller individual profit on 10,000 items is a lot more money than maximum profit on just 10!

Material Differences Between 3d and Manufacturing

3d printing, at the home level, usually consists of melting a spool of plastic and extruding it in layers to make an object, or shining a UV light source into a vat of UV curing liquid resin in layers to produce items. These items are plastic, and usually small. Some commercially available 3d printers can make items that are a couple feet square at the base and three or four feet high, but this is the extreme. Most home printers can create items less than one foot cubed, and if you’re talking about DLP resin 3d printers, the volume is a lot smaller than that.

Industrial 3d printers that use laser sintering can produce items made of metal or other materials, but their cost is astronomically higher than those 3d printers we use for home. Companies like Shapeways.Com use 3d laser sintering machines to 3d print metal objects, like rings or statues. Those machines can be in excess of $100,000.00USD, so unlikely good for home use.

Traditional manufacturing, of course, can produce with anything you’ve seen manufactured! It’s routine to produce items made of steel, wood, fabric, and plastics, sometimes melding more than one into one object. 3d printing has a hard time with this. You can print with wood-like plastics, or rubber-like plastics, or hard plastics that are strong like steel, but they’re plastics. Integrated printing with multiple filament extruders, each with different materials loaded, can produce some integrated items, but this is complex and rare. It can be done at home, but most home 3d printers do not have more than one filament extruders, although they are available.

Combined, Rather Than Instead Of

The sweet spot, currently, is the combination of 3d printing with traditional manufacturing. You can use 3d printing to create a prototype, or series of prototypes, until you get the item just right. Once you have that, you can produce tens of an item for testing in the marketplace. Real users can try out your product and provide feedback. You can start your marketing and advertising with real items, even though they’re essentially prototypes. 

You can go through this cycle several times, improving the items and testing them each time, all rapidly, and all with very little up-front cost. You could go through three rounds of producing a 3d model in CAD software, printing the prototype on a 3d printer, testing it with the design team, producing ten of the item and sending them out to field testers, all within two or three months. With that sort of feedback, your product is bound to be far superior to any that were rushed to market without this extensive testing. It cost you a designer’s salary, a 3d printer, some shipping, and potentially some other expert help.

Armed with this information, you can now figure out the best way to manufacture the part or item. In fact, you could already be in this process once you’ve produced your first working prototype by consulting your production team with that prototype item. Even though the item may change a little from the design, the broad strokes of what the item is will enable the manufacturing team to estimate and even begin planning for the new item. If you’re outsourcing the manufacturing, you can send the prototype item out to a potential manufacturing firm for comment and quoting before you’re ready with the final item. It’s likely good enough to start the process.

If in testing the prototype, you find that the part or item doesn’t work, then you’ve done so with a lot less money invested than if you had gone ahead an manufactured it. That’s the beauty of prototyping, and with 3d printing. Prototyping is a lot cheaper and a lot faster than it has ever been. 3d printing has its place here, and we’re already seeing the results in the manufacture of just about everything.

But let’s not forget those hobbyists out there or cottage industry people that only want to make tens of an item, and not thousands. Doll house furniture manufacturers can design and produce a dozen item and sell them in a cottage industry, designing, making and selling from home. Tabletop gamers have fully embraced this technology and are producing thousands of wonderful models for games from Dungeons & Dragons to Bolt Action World War 2 Miniatures games to just about everything else. Scale model makers are making conversion parts with 3d printing for sale in the kit aftermarket, to convert stock models to specialty items. These hobbies and their little cottage industries have really seen an uptick since the introduction of the 3d printer. 

This entire discussion has been done with today in mind. The future will bring more and better 3d printing, but it will also bring more and better traditional manufacturing processes, too. I do predict that 3d printing will improve the quality and speed to create even higher quality items in less time. We’re just starting on the 3d printing technology path. There’s lots more to go.

But traditional manufacturing is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It will improve with 3d printing prototyping, but it’ll still be chugging away long after I’m gone!

I watched the first episode of Start Trek in the 1960s, before it was a rerun (I was quite young, but it made a major impact on me!) In it, they used the teleporter to move about, and that was magic. We may be a ways off from that. But in 1987, Star Trek: Next Generation came out, and they had replicators to produce objects. To me, 3d printing is a slow replicator. You put in your computer commands, and out pops a complete product. It’s slow, but it works. I suppose 3d scanning an object in one place, sending the resulting STL file to the remote place, and they printing it out is a very slow way of teleporting, so maybe we’re actually there (albeit in a very slow and low quality way). 

Live long and prosper!

Related Questions

Is 3d printing cheaper than manufacturing?

3d printing can be cheaper than manufacturing when you want only one or a very small amount of an item. If you want many more, manufacturing is likely better. The equipment may be more expensive to manufacture an item, but the cost per unit will likely fall dramatically, and the ability to create many in a short period is realized.

How is 3d printing different than traditional printing?

Traditional printing is two dimensional, or 2d. Usually, it refers to transferring an image or text onto paper, although you can print on just about anything with the right printer. 3d Printing takes raw plastic material and creates objects by adding material, one layer at a time. It does not use an existing item, but instead takes an electronic design file (most often this is a .STL file) and interprets it to create a physical 3d object.

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