Technology

3D printing now and the future of its technologies

Technology keeps driving the world of product development forward. One way technology does this is through 3D printing. Compared to traditional methods of product development, 3D printing offers some major advantages compared to the other methods. Specifically, it overcomes some of the major roadblocks that have plagued the methods of the past, increasing the chance of getting a product manufactured. 3D printing has taken the world of product development by storm. And every company that wishes to ensure bringing an idea to life needs to know what it has to offer.

3D printing benefits

3D printing is fast becoming a vital component of product development and the continued existence of companies all over the world. It allows for great quality models and even products to be produced quickly and cheaply. On top of that, it streamlines the design process and allows for broader market and testing. To top that off, the technology is increasingly becoming accessible. Any company that wants to get their product manufactured can use it in various ways to produce a quality product that people will buy.

It is cost-effective

Reducing costs is a major component of doing business. Luckily, 3D printing offers massive savings in the following areas:

  • Equipment: To get your product manufactured with 3D printing, all one needs is a 3D printer. This means product developers do not need to invest in any heavy equipment that needs many people to operate. This also allows companies to save on labor when undertaking a product development project.
  • Components: A major part of product development is prototyping. With 3D printing, it is possible to create a high-quality and functioning prototype in a single step. This is much cheaper than securing each individual component and then assembling the prototype, which is time-consuming.
  • Storage space: Due to the cost of manufacturing, it is prudent for companies to manufacture products in large batches. But the downside of this is that they might need to pay for storage space while waiting for the units to be sold. With 3D printing, products can be manufactured and sold on a needs basis, without worrying about paying for warehousing.
  • Fewer transportation expenses: 3D printers have the ability to make a product from start to finish. With traditional methods, a prototype would travel from factory to factory until the final product was manufactured. With 3D printing, all the designers need to do is send designs to a single location to manufacture the product. This reduces the number of times to product has to travel, significantly cutting transportation costs, whether it is by ship, vehicle or plane.

Great for product and market testing

3D printing produces prototypes quicker and easier. Meanwhile, traditional methods would take weeks, maybe even months, for a prototype to be complete. Now a functional prototype can be done in hours, allowing for fit testing on the target markets in the shortest amount of time. Once feedback is gathered from the consumers, it can be used to make improvements to a quality product.

Great product ideas can fail, if the execution was subpar. If a product is riddled with mistakes, it can be costly to fix the mistakes, depending on how far along the product development process is. 3D printing a real-life model can be produced and used to check usability, durability, manufacturing viability and more. This means mistakes can be caught and fixed before they become costly.

3D printing technologies

There are many technologies and techniques used in prototyping. However over recent years, 3D printing has been undeniably the fastest to grow and acquire market share. It is fastest and most versatile, in addition to being reasonably priced in most cases. Competing technologies such as CNC or more niche vacuum casting can take days for simple parts that only take a few hours to manufacture using 3D printing. Although, 3D printing is not the best when it comes to final parts strength, prototypes usually do not need to feature full target strength. New 3D printing materials such as stupidly strong Nylons are also bridging the gap.

Main technologies used in 3D printing are SLS, SLA, DLP, and most currently common FDM. These are ordered in terms of cost and quality from high to low, respectively.

  • SLS: selective laser sintering, uses laser to melt suspended material powder
  • SLA: stereolithography, uses laser to cure material inside liquid resin
  • DLP: digital light processing, uses LEDs to cure material inside liquid resin
  • FDM: fused deposition modeling, melts material in string filament form

In China, SLS is now almost the golden standard for 3D printing and one can hardly find a service that relies on other technologies. Since capital is widely available in the country expensive SLS machines are easily justified. This is especially the case with the presence of a growing direction in the country to produce new products, which in turn requires a lot of prototyping. SLS main patents has now expired as well. This gave manufactures ability to innovate more freely and create newer efficient SLS machines. The same happened with SLS materials which were also protected under various patented, and could now be manufactured by any expert manufacturer.

SLA can provide higher level of detail compared to SLS, but lacks strength and material options. SLA also requires a lot of manual intervention, which not only adds to cost of operation, but makes it extremely hard to scale for larger organisations and a headache for smaller ones. DLP is sort of low-end SLA, so it is only used within small economies that cannot justify cost of SLS machines and do not require additional level of detail provided by SLA.

FDM is the center of the 3D printing revolution.It is started with open source projects such as reprap project, followed by semi-opensource Ultimaker project, and the rest is history. The technology now is responsible for most of desktop 3D printing market share and for good reasons. First of all FDM is easiest to operate, easily maintained, most affordable, and has shortest order to deployment lead time, since there are distributors for it in all major cities. FDM printers almost do not require any setup time before each print. Some printers even offer continuous printing, using automatically replaceable print beds, or a moving conveyor print bed.

The future of 3D printing is now more about materials than anything else. Newer materials allow better bonding, smoother surfaces, and even come at more affordable prices. This is not to say that we will stop seeing innovations in machines themselves, however now machines’ year to year improvements are small and incremental, a far cry from fast innovative pace it once employed. New thermoplastic materials used in 3D printing are heading towards metal strength and SLS metal printing.

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