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File, print, click, produce: Manufacturing in the age of 3D printing

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For small to mid-size businesses, manufacturing beautifully intricate product parts typically means contracting a supplier to do the job. But what if you were able to *print* your own parts in your own “home”? Some entrepreneurs are already doing it! Thanks to the advances in three-dimensional printing, your manufacturing power may soon lie in the click of a button.

A recent article in The Economist explains the phenomenon of 3D printing and its potential impact on the manufacturing industry. For those who don’t know how it works, three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing, deposits successive layers of a given material until a solid object is formed. Guided by a computer-aided design, these layers are laid on top of each other, separated by only a fraction of a millimeter. The layers then undergo a bonding process (i.e. liquid bonder or electron beam) that solidifies the product. This process is compared to its counterpart, subtractive manufacturing, which, as its name implies, “subtracts” or cuts away at a block of material until a part is finished.

Although it may sound impossibly futuristic, additive manufacturing has actually become a well-known and widely used process among engineers and designers within the past decade. Currently, its primary function is to quickly produce less expensive prototypes. After the prototypes are achieved through 3D printing, engineers and designers usually stick to conventional methods when it comes to manufacturing the final products. However, “as 3D printers have become more capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, including production-grade plastics and metals, the machines are increasingly being used to make final products too.” As highlighted by The Economist, more than 20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products, not prototypes, and that number is expected to rise to 50% by 2020.

A technology like this could potentially revolutionize the industry. First, it makes manufacturing significantly less expensive. Product developers no longer need to shell out the costs to set up a factory or find a supplier; they can have the ability to print their designs at their fingertips. Because changes in specs can be easily addressed, expensive scrap costs would also be less of a worry. Additive manufacturing is also greener, as it typically requires only 10% of the material otherwise used in subtractive manufacturing.

If pushed into mainstream use, mass production may no longer be the norm. Customization and quality may soon override the manufacturing industry’s “mass” culture. If a custom part is needed, it may be cheaper and easier to print one than to contract a supplier.

Will additive manufacturing completely replace the more traditional process of subtractive manufacturing? The Economist doesn’t think so, as great strides are being made there too. However, a combination of both additive and subtractive practices on the manufacturing floor could equal great success for business owners. How about THAT for a winning equation?

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