Additive manufacturing is the industrial production name for what’s more widely known as “3D printing”. While 3D printing may sound like some cutting-edge technology that only geeks or niched industry professionals will use, the idea behind it is quite simple. Essentially, 3D printing involves using a computer-aided-design (CAD) software to virtually slice a design into thousands of horizontal layers. Then, a nozzle or laser deposits materials to construct each layer from bottom to top.

In the more recent years, media buzz surrounding 3D printing and the possibilities that this new technology promises have flooded the news. According to a 2014 CNBC article, “3D printing will make life as we know it today barely recognizable”. With other claims stating that the average lifespan would reach 110 years old with the accessibility of 3D printed organs. Now, looking back there doesn’t seem to be any follow through on these grand visions. Is 3D printing going to change our lives or is it just another hyped up topic by the media?

There is no doubt that 3D printing is a revolutionary manufacturing method. In the engineering process, designs are often limited by the manufacturing options available. Designs are practically worthless if engineers cannot figure out how to effectively manufacture their products. The limitations of manufacturing have often stalled integration of emerging technologies and confined creative potential. However, what 3D printing offers to the manufacturing process opens up many new doors. It has allowed for the creation of complex structural designs once considered impossible to manufacture, such as complicated hollow tubes with integrated cooling ducts. Thus, it is incredibly useful for generating parts used in high temperatures environments such as turbine blades and rocket nozzles. Another incredible benefit that 3D printing brings to the table is high efficiency. In traditional manufacturing methods, giant blocks of raw materials are machined down to final forms, often losing 90% of the raw material during processing. This low efficiency refinement is especially detrimental when using expensive material such as titanium alloy, where a majority of it end up in the waste during the manufacturing process. This raises costs for manufacturers which is then passed down to the consumer. Not to mention, these wasteful methods further damage the environment since larger quantities of raw materials need to be mined or harvested. 3D printing solves these issues by only depositing material exactly where they are needed when generating a product which dramatically decreases waste production. All of this supports the fact that 3D printing is indeed revolutionary, but where is 3D printing now and why hasn’t it flooded the mainstream market?

3D printing has also played a major role in the medical devices industry, especially in the area of prosthetics by allowing medical device designers to innovate faster. Prototyping has remained one of the greatest hurdles in bringing a new invention to the market. This is because designers and engineers have to carefully navigate around the limitations of the traditional manufacturing methods. If engineers cannot manufacture the design, then the design is not worth the paper it is printed on. 3D printing almost fully negates this problem as it allows designers and engineers to directly produce their prototype in computer-aided-design (CAD) software such as SolidWorks™. This software can also perform topology optimization which is a type of stress analysis to aid designers in figuring out exactly where material is needed. This helps to optimize a design for its particular application. All of this has allowed designers and engineers to bring their inventions to life incredibly fast which rapidly increases the innovation pipeline. 3D printing has also brought the price of prosthetic down for amputees by increasing their availability and accessibility. Following traditional methods of manufacturing, an expensive mold of the amputee’s limb has to be made. The diverse morphology of all amputee’s limb makes this very difficult because what might work for one person, likely won’t work for another. This creates a price barrier for amputees to obtain prosthetics. With 3D printing, all that has to be done is making a fast 3D scan of the amputee’s limb and saving it as a CAD file. Then the file can be sent to a 3D printer and a custom prosthesis can be made relatively cheaply compared to traditional methods. This workflow completely avoids the expensive mold manufacturing process and can increase access to prosthesis for amputees in need. An example of a well-known 3D printed prosthesis is the futuristic looking Exo by William Root. This design uses minimum material and is 100% custom fitted to its wearer. Due to the fact that it is 3D printed, it also allows the wearer to implement specific designs to give the prosthesis character.

Although a majority of the population can’t relate to prosthesis, most people don’t know that the field of orthodontics is also shifting towards 3D printing. Many are required to wear retainers or dental aligners which have to be created to fit unique oral anatomy. Traditionally, a gel is casted in the patients’ mouth, then an experienced technician creates a mold from that cast, lastly a vacuum fits a plastic sheet over the mold to make the final product. This method is prone to inaccuracies and often require trained professionals to make many adjustments. 3D printing can dramatically improve this lengthy and expensive process. All that’s required is a 3D scan of the patient’s mouth and within a few hours an exact replica of that mouth can be generated through a 3D printer. This skips over the need for a technician to manually create the 3D model, dramatically decreasing the cost of making retainers/aligners. From creating a replacement leg to enable amputees to walk again, to printing retainers for teenagers after taking off their braces. 3D printing has been a larger part of our lives than we often think.

From looking at the medical device industry, we can see that 3D printing seems to be moving into the mainstream, but why hasn’t 3D printing moved into other fields? Why aren’t consumers seeing the shelves of stores filled with 3D printed products? The answer is the economics.

The initial cost of manufacturing is high due to the machines and tools required, but as the number of parts created increase the price of each unit dramatically decreases. Most consumer products follow this form of economics such as iPhones and cars etc. This is because as long as there is continuous demand for the product the same tooling, machinery, and mold can be reused again and again.

The initial cost of manufacturing is significantly lower than traditional manufacturing methods, however, as the number of parts produced increase, the price per part doesn’t significantly decrease. This is because each part must be 3D printed from scratch and the only reusable parts are the 3D printers and the CAD files which are very cheap to make in the first place. This is why manufacturers often stick with traditional manufacturing processes because the products are simply cheaper to make due to the sheer scale that is required. Due to the economics of scale, as of today, manufacturers are sticking with traditional manufacturing methods for mass produced products while only using 3D printing for products that are made in small amounts such as prototypes or customized products. Only when the price of 3D printing can find its way around this problem can it become mainstream in everyday products.


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Jason Yang

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