Whether it’s being used in rapid prototyping and consumer products or small-run manufacturing, 3D printing has become an important part of the workflows of many hobbyists, artists, engineers, and fabrication companies. What does the future hold for this important technology?
Today, 3D printers can create a product in a matter of hours, or even minutes. This is already dramatically faster than the printers of the past. Manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make printers faster and more capable. We have already seen dramatic improvements in the materials available for printing, from plastics to metals; now we’re seeing improvements in speed and quality.
For example, in 2015, the company Carbon 3D introduced a continuous SLA 3D printing process known as CLIP (continuous liquid interface production). This technology has the ability to print 3D parts anywhere from 25 to 100 times faster than current SLA technology.
The quest for speed in the 3D printing industry is ongoing in all levels and all technologies. Many of the FDM printers have seen double digit increases in speed with the introduction of innovative technologies, such as the E3D volcano hot end. This hot end has the ability to process much more material per second than a standard printer, allowing printers to move faster and use larger nozzles. This combination brings a dramatic reduction in print time.
Increased speed in 3D printing is resulting in much faster turnaround of 3D printed parts. In the early days of 3D printing, getting a print back from a service bureau could take a week or more. This was primarily due to the speed of the process. Today’s fast printers already allow for overnight printing and desktop printing that only takes hours instead of days.
Tomorrow’s even faster printers will allow engineers and designers to get their parts produced within minutes of sending them to the printer. For service bureaus and in-house printing departments, this means higher throughput and the ability to serve more customers, as well as the ability to create prototypes at an unbelievable rate.
Mass production using additive manufacturing is currently in its infancy. With many of the large printer manufacturers focused on the manufacturing space, it’s only a matter of time before 3D printing starts to compete with other methods of mass production.
Currently, companies like Stratasys are focused on different aspects of the manufacturing process. Today, it’s possible to create molds for injection molding plastic parts at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. And, companies like Optomec are already developing printers that can be used in the direct manufacture, high-volume production.
Tomorrow’s manufacturing facilities will most certainly include a variety of the additive manufacturing technologies. Another benefit from the use of this technology is the ability to create customized mass produced parts. This capability will allow for more agile manufacturing, and the ability to distribute the manufacturing process to other points along the supply chain, even the end user.
With speed comes productivity. As a designer or engineer looking to prototype either an individual part or an entire assembly, faster printers will make a dramatic difference. When a part can be made in minutes rather than hours, a prototype can be iterated and tested in less time and at a greatly reduced cost. Productivity increases due to the increased speed of printers will be felt up and down the supply chain.
The increase in productivity will not only affect manufacturing, it will affect every industry that utilizes 3D printing. This includes medical practitioners as well. With the ability to 3D print from CT scans and MRI data, doctors can better plan complex surgeries. An example of this is the recent separation of twins joined at the head.
Material producers are constantly looking to improve the quality of the materials available for 3D printing. Today, a variety of materials are available, ranging from metals to plastics. Even bioprinting materials, like human cells is available. Of course, food printing is also part of this. Chocolate and cookie dough are among the many things users can print with today.
The future of printed materials will allow for unique material properties, since several printers on the market today can combine materials and make variations between them. This capability will continue to increase along with the variety of materials.
Take, for example, FDM printing materials. In the early days of filament-based printing, there were only a few options available, like ABS, PLA and some industrial materials like Ultem and polycarbonate. Today, manufacturers of filament are making stronger and better printing materials, like Colorfabb’s nGen and Taulman 3D’s Bridge Nylon. These and other filament manufacturers are continuing to push the envelope of what is possible with 3D printer filament.
And finally, where does this all lead? Faster printing, better materials, and the final ingredient, lower cost, is where the future lies. 3D printers and their materials started out with costs only large companies could afford. In the last 10 years, prices have come down on both printers and the materials for them. Prior to the ending of the FDM and SLA patents, 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. Today, you can buy a 3D printer for under $500. As we move into the future, the costs will level out and become more stable. However, the quality of printers and the speed at which they print will continue to increase, providing an ever-growing value for the dollar.
Today, 3D printing is like the wild west, where new products shoot it out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. The beneficiaries of this marketplace are the end users of the technology. With the high point of 3D printing mostly behind us, industry leaders and new startup companies look towards the future. A future where both intellectual property rights and the rights of the user are in balance, where products are prototyped in minutes instead of hours or days, and where a 3D printer in every household is a real possibility, not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
Steven Schain is the postproduction supervisor for all CADLearning products from 4D Technologies, specializing in the development of Media & Entertainment CADLearning products for Autodesk, Inc., software, including 3ds Max software and Maya software.