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.