3D printing, also commonly referred to as additive manufacturing or AM, is a process used to synthesize a 3D object. The most common process involves depositing multiple layers of a material such as plastic in a machine which is under the control of a computer. The versatility of modern day 3D printers has made it possible to prototype just about any complex geometric shape.
Early Prototyping Made Simple
In the past, both large and small businesses would have to invest in custom machine tools to work on early stage prototypes of new parts or items. Now 3D printing technology can help engineers test their newest ideas with just a few clicks of a button. As a result, product developers can produce an excellent prototype of their product in under a week on average once a new design has been created. This is just a fraction of the time compared to the standard three to four months that product developers would otherwise require for prototyping.
Engineers Go-To Tool Continues to Improve
A USA Today interview with engineers working for some of the top businesses revealed their use of 3D printing technology. Gregory Jantsch, one of the mechanical engineers at Jabil revealed that 3D printing was and is a big part of the product design process. Jabil manufactures and develops everything from medical equipment to tiny semiconductors with 3D printers playing a major part in early prototyping.
Ford Confesses to Using 3D Printers for Prototyping
When Ford showed off its latest hybrid car at a recent auto show, the claim made was that the drivetrain in addition to other parts was developed using 3D printers. It’s a process which has quite literally taken hold over the manufacturing world. Ford no longer uses custom machine tools, which have been replaced by 3D printing technology. The new method according to Ford allows for product developers to rapidly prototype, test and fine tune an idea prior to it being finalized. The approach helps to keep development costs down while spotting and fixing issues during the early design phase.
The Consumer End of the Industry
Apart from industrial-size 3D printers, consumer-sized 3D printers are now becoming smaller, more powerful and easier to use. This has made product development for amateurs and students a lot faster, not to mention made it extremely educational. Though basic 3D printers like TwinKind and Printrbot have been marred with mechanical and physical issues, they still make it possible to prototype simple designs.
In a few years we will see 3D printers becoming cheaper, more readily available, easier to use and much faster. As a result, prototypes will be developed in a matter of days and at the fraction of the cost as compared to today. It will also no longer be a tool for engineers but soon become a necessity like your laser printer. It will also speed up the pace of technological development similar to how CAD design and computers did in the past.