3D Printing: Novelty or Necessity?

May 24, 2024
A 3D printed Octopus which would be impossible to machine
A 3D printed Octopus which would be impossible to machine

Traditional manufacturing methods of forging, sand-casting, moulding, bending and many more were working just fine. The advent of computers only enhanced these methods by automating most of these processes, most prominently transforming turning, milling, and drilling processes forever by introducing CNC machines. Most of the structures you see around you today from beams of buildings to railway tracks are still made using what many today would consider “Old-school” techniques. Then we raise the question, what place does 3d printing have in our society? Why are corporates investing millions of dollars to fund research projects to further the development of additive manufacturing? Let’s analyse these reasons!

3D printing has many limitations. From size to strength and even aesthetics, 3d printing has many constraints. There is still widespread belief that 3d printing is not an alternative to machining but rather just a novelty. Well, while 3d printing most definitely is not the absolute alternative, it certainly does have its place in our society. What’s more? 3d printing is able to easily realise parts that cannot be achieved even with precision machining.

3D printing is a new technology, relatively speaking, having been non-existent until the 1980s. 3d printing is an additive manufacturing process, in contrast to CNC machining which is subtractive in nature. In simple terms, 3d printing just like your everyday desktop ink printer, prints something from nothing. CNC on the other hand carves something out of something even bigger. Here we see the first of many benefits of 3d printing. Raw material prices are rising, and it is more critical than ever before to reduce wastage as much as possible. This is achieved by 3d printing. Only the volume of material required to produce the finished product needs to be fed into the machine. In traditional machining, a block of material would be used to sculpt the finished product, rendering the remaining material useless in the process. This way, 3d printing is able to reduce a lot of wastage of raw materials.

The second benefit of this intriguing technology is the ability to print precision parts that otherwise cannot be machined. Not to say that CNC machines cannot be used for complex parts, however, as explained in a previous article, complex parts require CNC machines with higher axes which greatly increases fabrication costs. Alternatively, using 3d printing would be more cost-efficient and would free up the same machine for other components that are worth machining. 3d printing is also used as the primary prototyping medium in many industries to experiment various designs at a cheap and fast rate. Desktop 3d printers are more affordable now and hence, designers and product engineers are able to test out their ideas frequently and quickly using 3d printing before sending the same parts for bulk manufacturing to CNC machine shops. This has also enabled many hobbyists to create fun projects like the Octopus as shown earlier.

Related to that point, let’s discuss the third benefit of 3d printing which is that it empowers more people to become innovators. 3d printing technology is being used by people of all ages and in every field from students to professional aerospace engineers. Any individual with a concept and basic know-how of computer-aided design is able to create any prototype and have it realised into an actual object of form within a short span of time using 3d printing. Engineers in the most technical of fields are also able to carry out rapid prototyping of their designs without having to go through the traditional 5 to 7 days of machining time. This has and will continue to speed up innovation in our era. For example, during the peak of the covid-19 pandemic in Singapore in July 2020, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) developed a new method of producing nasopharyngeal Covid-19 testing swabs that could be 3d printed reducing Singapore’s reliance on other countries for her supply of swabs [1].

In conclusion, while we do acknowledge that 3d printing is unlikely to replace traditional manufacturing due to its many limitations, it is certainly true that 3d printing can co-exist. The benefits it brings in terms of opening up an avenue for hobbyists and innovators alike to bring their ideas to life is unprecedented. Additionally, it is currently the only method to produce high precision, low volume parts at an affordable price point. The medical industry is also turning to 3d printing to support ideas like stem cell research. So which idea will you print to life next?

Thank you for reading!