I love 3D printing and have been covering it since the technology was invented by Chuck Hull at 3D Systems in 1986. In 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, three-dimensional objects are made in tiny incremental layers from a digital model. Sometimes machines like printers are used to deposit the layers, but other approaches are also used, including powerful lasers to fuse powder metals or plastics.
I get increasingly tired of what seems to be endless hype surrounding the process. It seems every two weeks or so there is a “Wow” story in the Economist or the New York Times, or somewhere else. They always have headlines like this one posted today: “3D printing may shape a new manufacturing revolution“.
I might be crazy, but it seems like I’ve seen just about that same exact headline every year for at least 20 years. And while there have been many impressive developments in many areas, I certainly have not seen a “manufacturing revolution”.
I was reminded of this recently when I walked through Nypro’s mother plant in Clinton, Mass. Sitting there like a great big Christmas present in the NyproMold facility is a Laser Cusing additive manufacturing (now the preferred terminology) machine from Concept Laser GmbH. It’s used to make inserts with conformal cooling channels when customers are willing to pay the tab. It might be the only additive manufacturing machine owned by a mold maker in the United States, and it’s not clear to me it was a solid investment for NyproMold.
And that’s a shame because one of the really huge benefits of additive manufacturing is that it can create complex internal geometries, such as cooling channels. But it’s expensive. And for mass production, it’s way too slow a process to be realistic. And there aren’t really that many parts that benefit from its capabilities. Surface finish? Not Class A. Materials costs? Much more than molding grades of plastics or stamping grades of metals. Materials used in many of the technologies are exotic and have limited, if any, functional applications.
Stratasys created a neat niche in the assembly market (thinks jigs and fixtures) for its 3D printing systems, which have the advantage of using common plastics. 3D printing works great when there are a lot of design changes and volumes are low.
It’s the greatest invention ever for prototyping. It works great for dental and some medical applications. It works great for making custom designed, one-off toys and monsters. It works great for custom cranial implants, although many are still machined from stock shapes. Works great for architectural models. Some goofballs are even using cheap 3D printers to make guns.
But a manufacturing revolution?
Well the hippie press thinks so. But is making small runs of odd stuff in San Francisco lofts really a manufacturing revolution? It’s cool to think so, but no it’s really not.
I still love 3D printing, and I love all of the innovations that keep coming, but it will remain a specialized technology for at least the foreseeable future.