The technology behind 3D printing and additive manufacturing creates three-dimensional solid objects that come from digital files. This outcome is achievable because the printer can lay down successive layers of material until it creates the final item. Each one is a thin, horizontal cross-section slice that will eventually become the final product.
The first concepts for 3D printing that were not part of a science-fiction story appeared in 1974 through the world of David E. H. Jones. He laid out the concept of this technology in the journal New Scientist using his regular column as the medium. Then the first additive manufacturing equipment began to make an appearance in the early 1980s, with Hideo Kodama inventing two methods that could fabricate 3D plastic models.
Over the past decade, 3D printing has become a technology that anyone can embrace with a small investment. The cost of this product is similar in 2019 to what high-quality photography printers were in the late 2000s.
Several pros and cons of 3D printing are worth considering if you’re thinking about exploring this technology further.
List of the Pros of 3D Printing
1. You have complete freedom of design when using a 3D printer.
A 3D printer gives you the unique ability to create complex geometry that injection molding or machining processes struggle to duplicate. Traditional manufacturing and design methods cannot create the same outcomes because it would be impossible to remove items from a mold or machine them correctly. Since the additive process uses support materials that get printed on a line-by-line basis, you can simplify your designs with any needed geometry. This advantage is the reason why an investment in this area can replace an entire assembly.
2. It gives you the option to prototype in hours instead of weeks.
The use of a 3D printer means you can prototype a new product or idea in a few hours instead of the amount of time it takes using the traditional design process. You can have usable parts in-hand before the end of the day in some situations. Then you can proceed with the next design iteration as needed.
Every design modification you make allows for the making of a quick and inexpensive prototype. Because of 3D printing, you no longer need to go through the long and often expensive process of machining every time you need to make some changes.
3. 3D printing gives you the ability to print-on-demand.
Manufacturing enough product to have a usable inventory can take up a lot of storage space. That problem is further magnified when you might not be using a part or product as intended. The use of a 3D printer gives you the option to avoid overstocking or the taxation consequences that come when you carry lots of inventory over into the new year. You can print items on-demand as needed. Instead of producing items in bulk to save money, this technology lets you manage your financial assets more effectively.
You get to keep all of your printing designs in STL or CAD files, giving you a virtual inventory of all your parts or products instead. Since you’re not investing in tooling, then it costs almost nothing to change your mind at almost any point in the production process. That means this advantage saves you from having outdated or defective items clogging up your space.
4. You can produce lighter and stronger parts with a 3D printer.
Although it might seem like the plastics that you produce in a 3D printer would be inferior to aluminum or steel, that isn’t always the case. Plastics have several advantages to consider when constructing parts, models, or prototypes, starting with the lightweight nature of the product. Automobile manufacturers are switching to this technology because the lighter components allow for better fuel efficiency ratios. You can get the same results with almost any plastic-for-metal substitution, and the cost tends to be cheaper without compromising on performance.
5. 3D printing provides an outlet for waste reduction.
The only way to achieve 3D printing is through the additive manufacturing process. The only materials needed to fashion a part or component get used in the creative work, which means there is a lot less waste produced by the work. Machining often requires you to cut away large chunks of non-recyclable materials to produce the final item, which increases costs and potentially damages the environment.
Since you have less waste in the manufacturing process, then the cost of production goes down since you’re only paying for the materials needed.
6. You can work at faster speeds with 3D printing.
Even when you have complex designs to print, the speed of this technology exceeds anything else that’s available in the manufacturing sector today. 3D printing allows you to be several stages ahead in the design process when compared to a mold or machine work.
7. The price of 3D printing makes it a usable asset immediately.
The final cost of a 3D printing project depends on multiple factors, but you can expect this technology to be more cost-effective than other methods. One machine does all of the work in this single-step process, making it so there isn’t any extra time or energy spent in different locations during the manufacturing process. You don’t need an operator to be nearby to remove pick-outs or transition parts to the next stage of the creation process either.
That means companies can reduce their labor expenses, equipment costs, and utility charges at the same time when using this technology. Industrial-grade 3D printers might not be cheap, but it is a long-term investment that will usually see significant cost savings over time.
8. 3D printing is very accessible.
The usability of 3D printers in a variety of situations makes it one of the most versatile technologies available right now. If you don’t want to do the production work by yourself, then you can usually find nearby servicers that will let you outsource the work to them. Even if the initial costs are a little higher, you can avoid the transportation costs of the traditional production methods that typically occur in China and Southeast Asia today. That means you can create items domestically without a significant change in your expense profile when using this technology.
9. The environment appreciates the use of 3D printers.
The use of 3D printers improves the fuel efficiency of the manufacturing process. It contributes less waste to the overall landfill cycle. Part designs can be altered using this technology to save on material use, which means it conserves energy while still producing usable goods. Although the full impact of this benefit is individualized and somewhat unpredictable because of the newness of this technology, we do know that it promotes a more efficient process when compared to the traditional methods of manufacturing.
10. 3D printing allows us to create new shapes.
3D printing gives producers the option to pursue design concepts that wouldn’t be available from any other medium. You can open up more possibilities to create better outcomes because there are fewer limitations in the manufacturing process. There might be issues with certain materials being used to create the final product, but we can still mimic the efficiency of nature with what we are doing. It becomes a highly-efficient approach that allows us to unlock and commercialize ideas that were not possible in the past.
11. It can go almost anywhere.
3D printers come in a variety of shapes and sizes that are highly portable. Many items are suitable for home-use with this advantage, and improved pricing makes the technology more accessible to interested parties. That means anyone can become a disruptor in their preferred field thanks to the prototyping and testing capabilities that are achievable with this item. It adds more flexibility and innovation to entry-level providers so that businesses and industries eventually benefit over time.
It also creates unique job opportunities for an entrepreneur. You are free of minimum orders, have the option to customize anything, and you can share designs or finished products from home with a simple e-commerce platform.
12. The quality of 3D printing can pass most inspections.
Laser-based systems can use exceptionally high-resolution printing plans to create parts and prototypes that can avoid problems with delamination. You might need to provide treatments to help the item reach full strength and experience slower production speeds, but you’ll still see the cost benefits with every run. As long as you can afford the initial expense for the industrial-grade equipment, you can create almost anything you can imagine.
List of the Cons of 3D Printing
1. We have a limitation on the number of materials available for 3D printing.
Many researchers, scientists, and futurists suggest that 3D printing could be used to create any material. Visions of printing organs, food items, and other needed items populate many lists about the pros and cons of this technology. When we look at what it can provide in reality, then we’re limited to a selection of plastics and metals. Not every item can be temperature-controlled to the point where printing is possible.
Most 3D printing materials are not recyclable. They’re not food safe either, although FDM can be somewhat useful in this final area. That means this disadvantage works against many of the benefits that come from this manufacturing process.
2. 3D printers have limitations on their build volume.
Most 3D printers today have small build chambers. This disadvantage even applies to industrial-grade products. Injection mold presses and mills have a much more significant capacity to produce items at a significant size. If someone wanted to follow a similar process using printing, then the item would need to get glued together based on the fractional sizes that could be made. That means your production time goes up for the larger items, reducing the cost and time benefits that are possible with smaller prototypes or parts.
3. You need to go through post-processing with almost every printed item.
Post-processing with 3D printers isn’t limited to the larger items. You’ll also need to go through the assembly work and clean up for the smaller items. That is the only way to create a smooth surface finish while removing the support materials. Chemical soaking and rinsing, heat drying, sanding, and other methods are all potentially needed depending on what item is being manufactured. The parts get produced quickly with this technology, but you may experience a lag when approaching this final step in the process.
4. 3D printing struggles to handle large volume orders.
If you need a significant quantity of parts in a short time, then 3D printing will not be the production process you want to choose. Any time your inventory reaches into the hundreds will be a trigger to look at creating an injection mold for the part instead. The initial investment is higher with the latter option, but the cost per unit becomes cheaper when you need to produce a significant volume of items. 3D printing costs remain static throughout the entire process, which means it ends up costing more in the long run.
5. The parts structure of 3D printing may not pass strength tests.
Additive manufacturing allows parts to get printed in layers that adhere to each other during the creation process. That means these items can sometimes separate or break under certain stress levels or with part orientation. This issue is an even bigger problem when using FDM. You can use multijet or polyjet printing to create materials that have more solidity, but that process leads to a brittle final outcome.
If you must avoid delamination for your project, then injection molding is going to be your best solution. It produces homogenous parts in ways that aren’t necessarily possible through 3D printing processes.
6. 3D printing can have lower accuracy tolerances than other production methods.
The quality of your 3D printer is going to dictate the results you can achieve with this manufacturing process. Some products in this category have a lower tolerance than others, creating parts that might be slightly inaccurate from the original design. You can fix this issue during the post-processing work, but it can end up being another increase in time and cost that you need to build into your routine.
7. Automation could lead to a reduction in employment opportunities.
Any job that requires repetitive work is on the chopping block today thanks to artificial intelligence and technologies like 3D printing. Human labor will transition to the post process and programming work while robotics and computers work to create the parts or prototypes needed for the business. The developed world may see a transition in workforce skills from this process, but it could put jobs at risk in countries that haven’t gone through a full industrial revolution as of yet.
8. 3D printing creates a problem with copyright issues that we need to manage.
As 3D printing becomes more accessible and popular, then it will be easier to produce counterfeit products that seem like the real deal. Intellectual property protection will need to apply at a higher level in the future to prevent fake products from reaching the market. Even with multiple controls in place to prevent fraud, it would be virtually impossible to tell the authentic items from the ones pretending to be. The issues with quality control from this disadvantage could create significant issues for producers and consumers, especially if counterfeit items don’t follow the same safety protocols.
9. People can use this technology to create harmful items.
Every technology has the potential to do unimaginable good in the right hands. It also has the power to create harm when unethical players enter into the spectrum. One of the most significant discussions in this area is the use of 3D printed guns. You could also use this tech to steal someone’s design to replicate it, circumventing customs fees or duties, or even sending designs across borders using email instead of going through the standard shipping processes. Governments may need to redefine what they consider to be a legally accepted transaction because of this work, and that outcome has the power to create multiple disadvantages in a variety of industries.
Manufacturing processes have looked at the pros and cons of 3D printing since the late 2000s. The goal was to have this technology become the future of our production work. Even with industrial investments to improve processes, we are still in the early days of discovering what is possible with this technology.
Some entrepreneurs are using 3D printers to build houses from natural materials. We’re creating parts out of plastic instead of metal to improve fuel efficiencies and reduce costs. It is also notable that we’re discovering that this option isn’t right for every potential manufacturing situation.
3D printing connects our creativity with an output device that almost anyone can use. It might still be the next innovation in the industrial world, or it could become the next wave of entrepreneurialism that changes local economies. Only time will tell how we can find ways to embrace this technology.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.