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January 2, 2013 AT 3:00 am

The Achilles’ Heel of 3D Printing

Adafruit 980

The Achilles’ Heel of 3D Printing.

Why ‘additive manufacturing’ isn’t expected to take over large scale industrial production any time soon.

Seems a little harsh, we’ll see where things are at in another year or so 🙂


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3 Comments

  1. It occurred to me last month that the past model for 3d printing is the bread machine. I have a bread machine, and I love it. It makes excellent bread for toast, though not good enough bread to satisfy a bread snob (for non-toast).

    The thing is, it was once the rage, and everyone had one. Now, it is just a way to privately make, and tune, a product that is widely available at low cost.

    Right now, consumer 3d printers are mostly a way to privately make, and tune, products that are widely available at low cost. Too many geegaws and not enough high value output.

    Can 3d printing produce truly high value output in the small shop? Or will it compete with the five and dime?

    … maybe also a little harsh, but I think it hinges on that. If 3d printing “fails” I have no doubt that many will stay happy users … as I am with my bread machine … but it won’t be as transformative.

  2. I don’t think people really get the purpose of 3d printing yet. Especially if you have people claiming that 3d printing is suppose to upset the balance of large scale production.

    3d printing can’t, nor should it replace large scale manufacturing. The catch with 3d printing is that complexity doesn’t cost you money, it costs you time. It takes a long time to prints something in 3d. I’m sure in the time it takes to print 20 of something 2,000 of the same object could probably come off an injection molding machine.

    Because of that people call 3d printing a niche, but it’s the same kind of niche that computing was in its early days. Computers, like 3d printers, were around a long time before
    they became common use.

    3d printing isn’t about upsetting a long standing market, it’s about creating a whole new one. The need and desire for people to make one off things isn’t new, just ask engineering and art students in college. Or design firms, or small businesses.

    Point is, people need one off things, and mass manufacturing doesn’t work for that. That’s mass manufacturing’s Achilles heel.

  3. This actually points out a couple of key development opportunities for 3D printing: the issue of dealing with bulk material, and the challenge of getting 3d printing to work with mass reproduction technologies.

    As they exist now, 3d printers waste precision on bulk material deposition. The inside of a solid cube doesn’t need to be rendered with .2mm accuracy. The only part of a shape that actually needs to be rendered with precision is the half-millimeter shell at the surface, but 3d printing treats objects as ‘all surface’, even when 99% of the ‘surface’ so painstakingly printed gets buried on the next pass.

    Figuring out how to handle the distinction between ‘surface’ and ‘non surface’, and how to put ‘non-surface’ material in place as fast as possible is an area where research will be useful, interesting, and valuable.

    3d printing also sits in relative isolation compared to other fabrication technologies. You have one machine making the whole widget. Other fabrication technologies cooperate.. castings form complex shapes quickly, machine shops refine the critical details without having to waste time removing large amounts of bulk. Each technique can focus on what it does best and fastest.

    That doesn’t mean I think 3d printing should disappear as one more stage in the "don’t try this at home" industrial production toolchain. I understand the appeal of having a single device that makes the whole widget. No single fabrication technology will ever do everything well though.. you buy generality by choosing not to optimize any specific thing.

    I think there has to be a small set of tools that can do short-run production better than 3d printing alone *or* full-on mass production. That’s another area where research will be useful, interesting, and valuable.

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