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Will 3D Printers Replace Manufacturing? It Depends

Manufacturing is when goods are created by cutting, molding, stamping, drilling, or machining. You might wonder if manufacturing is necessary since 3D printing can tailor materials to the perfect shape. However, the answer is complicated. 

3D printers will not replace manufacturing anytime soon. Although 3D printing currently helps manufacturers design parts, there are several drawbacks to 3D printing. These include slow speeds and high costs, and they make 3D printing less beneficial than manufacturing. 

So, let’s take a look into the past, present, and future of 3D printing. I’ll discuss how 3D printing currently makes manufacturing more manageable and the steps that engineers would need to take to advance 3D printing to the point that it could entirely replace the manufacturing process. 

What Is Traditional Manufacturing?

Before we dive into how 3D printing could help manufacturers process materials such as plastic and metal without the need for manufacturing, let’s talk about what manufacturing includes. 

Traditional manufacturing is a label used to describe four processes. These processes are injection molding, CNC machining, joining, and forming. Each one uses different techniques, and 3D printing offers various benefits to each one. 

Injection Molding

Injection molding most often uses molds and melted plastic to cast shapes such as plastic parts for cars, toys, plastic containers, water bottles, and circuit boards. However, some injection molding processes use molten metals to cast irregular shapes and components such as screws and nails. 

This casting method allows plastics and metals to have a durable, seamless construction since the entire product is only one layer of material. 

Injection molding allows manufacturers to make irregular shapes that stand up to the test of time, but someday, 3D printing might replace this process. That said, it’s important to note that, currently, injection molding is much faster than 3D printing. It also produces more durable products, so we will have to wait until 3D printers can print an object in mere minutes before it takes over the injection molding industry. 

CNC Machining

Computer numerical control (CNC) machining is when materials are drilled, turned, or milled by a computerized machine. This process also keeps the materials durable while providing the precision of automated machinery. 

With CNC machining techniques, each product looks precisely alike, which is crucial for manufactured car parts, furniture, street signs, gears for machinery, and computer parts. Additionally, there are tons of other applications for CNC machining, and most consumer goods have gone through this manufacturing process. 

cnc machining

Joining

Joining is when two materials are welded or joined together with soldering, nails, screws, glues, and other fasteners. 

This process is crucial for a durable product, especially in the making of automobiles, spacecraft, electrical towers, and other life-threatening goods. Additionally, joining can also be used to bond wires, wood, and much more. 

3D printing lends itself to joining the least, but it could help eliminate the process in time. With a 3D printer that is large enough, you could print an entire object instead of many parts that need to be attached later. 

Forming

Forming is likely the manufacturing process that you are most familiar with as a 3D printing hobbyist. Forming includes methods like extrusion, which is how 3D printing works. It can also involve forging metals, stamping, bending, rolling, and any other process that entirely changes the shape of a material. 

Forming is one of the parts of manufacturing that 3D printing can play a much more significant role in in the future since it can produce shapes that may be difficult to make by hammering or rolling. With the promise of an end-product made in just one simple step, forming could see a printing revolution soon. 

How Is 3D Printing Changing the Manufacturing Industry Today?

We have come a long way from hand-made goods in the manufacturing industry, especially in the last 20 years. Computerized machinery and large machines made with other manufactured parts make the sector more innovative, faster, and more efficient, and it can lower production costs, too. 

3D printing also plays a role in these innovations, helping people make one-time parts and homemade goods that replace other manufactured materials. However, its function is limited by its drawbacks. 

3D printing is changing today’s manufacturing industry since it provides manufacturers and the common public with a way to create prototypes and models, machinery parts, customized designs and medical equipment, and items for personal use. 

Prototypes and Models

The most common way that 3D printing is used in manufacturing today is in modeling and prototype making. 

3D printing has many advantages for these applications. It can produce cheaper, house-made, detailed, scale models of anything, whether a car design, new machine part, housing for a circuit board, or radical new invention. 

Since engineers and designers can make these materials on the floor of a manufacturing building, manufacturers don’t have to outsource their models and prototypes, making the modeling process fast, cheap, and straightforward. 

Machinery Parts

While 3D printed objects can’t process most of the parts for a manufacturing machine, manufacturers can use printers to make smaller temporary parts for the device. 

3D printed components like brackets, sockets, jigs, fixtures, and more are often used as tester parts, training parts, or temporary surrogate parts that manufacturers can later use to make perfect molds for injection molding. 

These parts, like models, can be made on-site, which allows for plenty of custom-tailoring, ingenuity, and rapid replacement. 

Customized Designs and Medical Equipment

3D printing is perfect for custom designs. 

One of the most promising applications for 3D printing is in the manufacture of medical equipment. For example, Paul Benning, Chief Technologist at 3D Print HP Inc., talks about how his favorite uses for 3D printing are in the making of custom prosthetics, custom insoles, and tailored footwear. 

Custom car parts for outdated models, electrical housings for electric vehicles, character designs, and so much more can be made with a 3D printer, allowing you to get the right fit and design for anything you can dream up. 

Some manufacturers, such as car part manufacturers, put 3D printers to good use by including 3D printers in their plants and allowing customers to request custom parts. 

Personal Use

Now, let’s talk about the benefit of 3D printing that can offer you the means of production. 3D printing for personal use can shortcut the manufacturing process, allowing you to make goods in your home. 

Although it is true that you still need a manufactured 3D printer and filament, you can make car parts, electrical housings, decor, models, new inventions, and so much more at home if you have a 3D printer. 

With the benefits of 3D printing for personal use, you can make a custom part or model in the same amount of time that you would expect a new one to arrive in the mail – and for a fraction of the cost. 

So, by far, the most significant benefit of 3D printing is the ability to make anything you want without spending the money or time to find what you want from a manufacturer. 

Where Does 3D Printing Fall Short in Manufacturing? 

3D printing isn’t suited to replace traditional manufacturing– well, not today, at least. 3D printing has several drawbacks in manufacturing that make it only suitable for temporary parts and models. 

3D printing falls short in manufacturing because 3D printed objects aren’t as refined or durable as manufactured parts and 3D printers are new and expensive. 3D printers aren’t as fast as other machines, printer errors are common, and filaments aren’t advanced enough yet.

So, let’s talk about why these features of 3D printing prevent printing from becoming a replacement for traditional manufacturing. I’ll also discuss how engineers could improve these features to make 3D printing the key to faster, cheaper, more intelligent manufacturing. 

3D Printed Objects Aren’t Refined

In 3D printing, your printer deposits hundreds to millions of layers of filament onto the print bed, forming a shape from each of these hair-thin layers. When your print is complete, you will likely see these layers, and you may want to sand the object to smooth them out. 

In manufacturing, the sanding of an object takes time, more equipment, and more money. 

When you work in a mass-production plant, where the production rate should be as swift as possible, the time and money it takes to post-process a 3D printed object aren’t worth it. In addition, especially in injection molding, where the product comes out seamless and perfectly every time, 3D printing would add unnecessary steps to the already efficient process. 

3D Printed Objects Aren’t As Durable

These hair-thin layers I just mentioned aren’t just unsightly and unrefined- they are weak points in your 3D print where pressure could easily crack the filament. 

It’s because of these weak points that manufacturing machines aren’t made with 3D printed parts. The filament’s weakness could also cause issues in hundreds of other industries such as automotive, electrical, and architecture industries. 

That said, engineers and 3D printer filament manufacturers are working to develop polymers and printers that have a seamless finish and high durability. 

In 2018, HP launched Metal Jet, a metal 3D printer and filament that can produce metal parts with industrial strength. These printers are primarily used in the manufacture of car parts and accessories. 

Additionally, as technology advances, many hopeful engineers expect metal 3D printing to revolutionize the manufacturing of manufacturing machines. Who knows, maybe we’ll soon see the invention of the first 3D printed 3D printer!

3D Printers Aren’t Fast Enough

3D printing one object can take from three to 30 hours, while injection molding takes mere minutes to make dozens of the same item. That’s a huge difference, and in a manufacturing plant where production rates should be as high as possible, it isn’t hard to see why we still use traditional methods instead of 3D printers.

At the moment, 3D printers can’t keep up with the speed of manufacturing methods such as forming and injection molding. Manufacturers likely won’t switch over to 3D printing until a printer can surpass the speed of traditional manufacturing. 

Printer Errors Are Common

Print failures aren’t uncommon, which is another reason why 3D printing isn’t ready to hit the factory floors quite yet. 

If you have any experience in 3D printing, you know that it’s not nearly as easy as it looks. No matter how hard you try, sometimes your print will fail, the nozzle will clog, the filament will skip, your model will topple over – the list goes on. 

Efficiency and productivity are what traditional manufacturing is all about, and the risk of failed products and wasted time or materials is enough to encourage most manufacturers to stick to the tried-and-true traditional methods. 

Filaments Aren’t Advanced Enough To Replace Machining and Injection Molding

Filaments such as ABS, PET, metal, wood, carbon, and resin have seen incredible developments to increase durability and ease of printing in the past few years. However, we aren’t quite at the point where filaments are ready to see industrial use. 

Using 3D printed objects as temporary parts, prototypes, or casting models works well, but the structural integrity of 3D printer filament isn’t heavy-duty enough to replace steel and stone yet. We are already making strides with the Metal Jet – but even then, the integrity of metal prints doesn’t compare to that of cast metals. 

3D Printers Are New and Expensive

When any industrial innovation is made, the parts and materials are expensive, especially when manufacturing plants are full of older machines that still work. On top of that, changing the production method requires training for plant workers, repairers, and overseers. 

The other cons of 3D printing aren’t worth the up-front cost and training time it would take to switch over for many manufacturers. However, as 3D printing technologies advance and promise swiftly printed, durable, and reliable end-products, manufacturers will likely switch to 3D printing. 

The Verdict: Will 3D Printing Replace Traditional Manufacturing?

For now, it seems like manufacturing is here to stay, but we can expect to see significant leaps in the ways that 3D printing aids in traditional manufacturing in our lifetime. 

It is possible that 3D printing will replace traditional manufacturing within the next few hundred years. However, as of right now, 3D printing is neither fast nor efficient enough to take over conventional techniques.

So, as far as the industry goes, you should expect to see 3D printers getting faster, filaments getting durable, and more and more manufacturers using printers to make their enterprises run smoother. 

Final Thoughts

3D printers won’t replace manufacturing yet since printed products aren’t as durable and refined as molded, formed, machined, or joined products. Printers can’t beat the speed and efficiency of a manufacturing machine right now. 

That said, engineers are always trying to make the next 3D printer faster, more efficient, more precise, and more affordable for manufacturers. Only time will tell what’s in store for printing in manufacturing, but the future looks promising.