We have all read the articles about consumer 3-D printing changing the world and endured their far-reaching claims about inexpensive 3-D printing technologies.
As serious engineers, designers and manufacturers, these claims, written by people who know very little on the subject of industrial 3-D printing, can be irritating, to say the least.
I mean, this world of consumer 3-D printing seems far removed from our serious worlds of manufacturing, right?
Or perhaps I should say, not wrong but not quite right, either.
While we are all in the business of serious manufacturing, I think the developing consumer 3-D printing market has a group of related roles that we should not ignore.
These roles are:
• Learning to design for 3-D printing
• Teaching kids and students about 3-D printing
• Just 'making things.'
(Now in the interests of openness, please remember I work for a company that delivers 3-D printing to all levels, consumer and prosumer through to high-end industrial, but I do believe that these worlds of 3-D printing are set to converge in a way none of us would have thought possible a few years ago.)
Design for 3-D Printing
Currently consumer 3-D printing has been pretty much limited to the extruded, hot plastic variety, but this situation will change as patents on better 3-D printing technologies expire.
In addition, print quality in the current consumer and prosumer market is increasing quickly while prices systematically drop.
Production, at industrial levels, using 3-D printers, is such a huge paradigm shift that everyone, designers, production engineers, etc., has to learn an adapted set of skills to deal with it.
As engineers, we all need to learn how to design for 3-D printing, and starting with a much more affordable printer can be a very efficient step towards achieving this.
Design for 3-D is noticeably different than design for (traditional) manufacture.
If you can combine several parts into a single part on a 3-D printer, then the need for weldments and bolt holes on those parts has gone. Then you might also be able to rethink a part in an entirely new way that is not predicated on draft angles, lifting bodies, seams, voids, etc.
In fact, various 3-D printing technologies allow you to totally change designs so that trapped volumes (voids) can be built directly into a solid part during the build, or parts within the part – something totally impossible to manufacture traditionally – can be created.
Do note, however, that different kinds of 3-D print technology can achieve different kinds of parts: SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) does well at producing complex parts, with internal voids and related parts as a part of the single assembly. Because it uses a powder bed, which acts as a natural support for the parts, it means that external supports are not needed. These kinds of parts typically do not work as well in extruded plastic printing and even SLA printing requires supports for the parts.
But, even simple, consumer-level 3-D printing can teach you and your engineers a lot about your design using additive manufacturing and also allow you to test out a 3-D model prior to getting serious about production.
3-D Printing for Students
There is no doubt in my mind that access to affordable, easy-to-use 3-D printers in schools, classroom environments and at home will change the future for kids and students.
The 3-D software tools currently being released that encourage accessibility to working and thinking in 3-D are the key enablers of this, and will allow kids to start to understand how to think in 3-D, and then make things.
Since the consumer technologies are focused on plastic extrusion for now, then yes, you will probably see a lot of toys and brightly colored plastic bracelets at first. But as the kids develop in their 3-D thinking, and as the affordability of 3-D printing grows, then you will start to see amazing things.
These kids exposed now will be thinking in 3-D a lot earlier. They have not been told it's difficult or impossible and so the traditional boundaries will not be built for them compared to the older engineers such as me.
Giving kids the tools of the future now is vital to pushing the limits of manufacturing.
For me, I also see the future: the demand for 3-D software modeling professionals is on the rise in many industries and having skills in 3-D at any level will make a student yet more employable when they graduate school in a few years. (Yes, some students will be at a lower-level of 3-D skills, but others will rise through every level to PhD.)
The main thrust, though, should be about inclusiveness of getting kids to think in 3-D, not about exclusivity.
Just 'Making Things'
All you design engineers out there have watched jealously as the machinist on the shop floor just grabs a piece of scrap metal and makes a trinket or a fixture, something he thought was fun or helpful, on a CNC machine.
While you are quite skilled in designing it, he gets to actually make things, and yet there never has been an easy way for you to just make something unless you invest in that home CNC mill for several thousand dollars.
3-D printing at a consumer and prosumer level changes that.
Yes, you might be limited to plastic parts for now, but at least you can have a go at making something you thought of.
One of our engineers has found that his simple design of a cable holder for your desk, easily printed out on a Cube 3-D printer, has allowed him to find all sorts of new friends in the office.
He is satisfied that the design was his own and that he got to see it through to completion – and the surprise on his team members' faces as he helps them organize the cables on their desk simply enhances that effect.
So don't dismiss consumer 3-D printing. It might seem too simple, maybe beneath your engineering expertise, but it is already catching up and can help change the way you, your bosses and your kids think.
Jim Williams is the vice president of Aerospace & Defense, MANTEC & Program Development at 3D Systems.