Fremont, CA: 3D printing is unique as a disruptive technology in one important way: after disrupting the manufacturing paradigm with rapid prototyping some 25-30 years ago, it is now disrupting manufacturing again. This is due to the fact that 3D printing technologies have now been refined to the point where they are truly viable production technologies. Now, manufacturers are debating the most prudent use of 3D printing for production, its benefits, where the sweet spot is in terms of preferable volumes, what opportunities exist through its use, and the barriers to entry.

3D Printing for Plastic Part Production

When compared to legacy processes such as injection molding, 3D printing has a number of advantages.

The most important of these is the increased design flexibility provided by 3D printing. Most obviously, 3D printing can make components that are hollow in certain areas either impossible or expensive and difficult to achieve using injection molding. This is possible because the material is added in layers in 3D printing, and the material density of the core can be changed. As a result, some areas can be hollowed out, but other critical areas can also be reinforced. This means that 3D printing is a critical enabler for light-weighting but increased strength. Ideal material conditions throughout a part are governed by design rather than the vagaries of various production and post-production processes utilized in 3D printing.

3D printing also encourages what is known as the consolidation of complexity. This is due to the technology's ability to combine parts and features that would otherwise have to be post-processed or assembled using conventional injection molding and allied technologies, which is driven by the design flexibility that 3D printing provides. Parts that are more ergonomic and incorporate multiple parts and features that would be impossible or ridiculously expensive to achieve through the fabrication of highly complex tooling required for injection molding can be produced using 3D printing.

Make or Buy

By 2021, few manufacturing companies will not have utilized or are considering using 3D printing at some level, whether as a supplement to existing legacy manufacturing processes or as an alternative. Many OEMs will use desktop 3D printers for rapid prototyping in order to obtain an early, reasonably accurate 3D model of their product designs; however, these printers are not crafted for more precise production applications where repeatability and accuracy/tolerance attainment are crucial.

3D printing machines with production-level repeatability and accuracy are typically pricey beasts. As a result, many prospective users are put off by the large capital investment required and instead turn to 3D printing subcontract specialists, who have the necessary levels of high-quality 3D printing machines in-house and the experience to get the most out of them. While entry-level desktop printers require only a basic understanding to operate, getting the necessary build parameters and optimizing quality, cost per part, and build timeliness requires a wealth of experience, which subcontract agencies have in spades.