In the world of manufacturing, the process of 3D printing is rapidly gaining the popularity and support of industries worldwide. What was once considered a technique exclusively for prototyping, is now being considered as a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing techniques. This is thanks to improvements in technology which have led to an increase in precision, reliability, and quality.
The main advantage of 3D printing is that it can use 3D Computer-Aided Design models to directly create complex shapes and structures. This foregoes the need to go through the process of creating costly molds or dies or using a lathe or milling machine. It can be used to create multiple different iterations of the design which is why it is such a help in prototyping. It is also cheaper since it uses plastic instead of metal and does not have any additional technical or labor requirements.
The term 3D printing is part of a wider branch known as additive manufacturing. Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is not just limited to the process of depositing melted plastic to form specific shapes as is popular in the world of hobbyist makers. Although this process is the most widespread form of 3D printing, there are many others that are available. Most 3D printers available on the market which are accessible to amateur makers, employ the process of Fused Deposit Modeling or FDM. This process uses PLA or ABS plastic in the form of spools and melts them down to deposit them at different angles and locations which hardens to form the required structure.
Another new method of 3D printing involves using lasers to burn powder to fuse it together to form structures. The process is called Selective Laser Melting or SLM. This is also a bottom-up approach to manufacturing and has the advantage of creating metal structures. Some common materials include stainless steel, cobalt, and aluminum. The process also creates stronger structures as compared to the traditional technique of casting. SLM is increasingly being adopted by the Aeronautical, Manufacturing and Medical industry because it is able to create complex metal designs in a matter of hours with the same material properties. It is also useful when a short production run is required which does not justify the cost of creating a mold or cast.
Other long-term benefits of additive manufacturing and 3D printing include considerably less waste as compared to subtractive manufacturing techniques like milling. This makes it more environment-friendly and sustainable to use. It also has the potential to disrupt current globalized production systems by favoring small, localized areas of manufacturing which cater to a particular area instead of the current system of a globalized large-scale production system supplying the world.
All-in-all the 3D printing trend is a positive and forward-thinking approach to manufacturing with considerable advantages over the current system and a lot of potential for growth and improvement. It is one of the key components in large-scale disrupting movements such as Industry 4.0 and is indicative of the future of manufacturing and production.