Compared to other manufacturing processes–casting and forging for example–3D printing is a very new technology. Only in the last decade or so has it really moved from being an aid to product designers to becoming a practical manufacturing tool. Only now are industries beginning to truly recognize the potential of additive manufacturing.
Forward-thinking manufacturers are using 3D printing to cut the time needed to prototype and launch new products. Others are producing more sophisticated tools that speed up their processes, improve their product quality, or both. And those at the leading edge are starting to utilize 3D printing to make production parts, cutting down on weight and material while combining multiple components into single complex parts, fit for use in many applications.
And yet, there are still those that have not yet come into the 3D printing fold. While hesitance to transition into the world of 3D printing is partially due to a reluctance to change, there are still some valid downsides to the practice. For all the benefits and promise that additive manufacturing offers, the technology still has its limitations. Here are some of the biggest benefits and limitations of 3D printing.
Benefits of 3D Printing
- 3D printing greatly reduces the time needed to go from design to actual part.
- Using 3D printing greatly reduces the financial risk in new product development by postponing the substantial investment in mold tools. 3D printing is perfect for handling the initial low volume demand.
- Allows for a reduction in spare inventory, particularly the slow-moving items that occupy shelf space for years.
- Enables the production of parts not possible through subtractive means. In many cases, this means parts that weigh less and use less material–a particular benefit with expensive aerospace alloys.
- Allows for multiple component parts to be combined into a single one-piece fabrication.
- Offers advantages in tool manufacturing such as a complex internal passage that improves cooling channel placement.
Limitations of 3D Printing
- Can take more time than molding or casting processes, and is often slower than subtractive machining methods too.
- Surface finish may be poor, due to the building up of the part layer by layer. This typically leaves small ridges that may need to be machined away to create functional surfaces. This may also need to be done simply for aesthetics.
- In order to reduce stratification, finer-grained powder or thinner filament can be used to create thinner layers, however, this typically extends the build time.
- 3D printing still has a relatively limited pool of materials in comparison to other methods.
- 3D printing materials typically cost more than conventional materials that you would find in billet form or for casting.
Growth in additive manufacturing is inevitable. However, amidst all the hype, it is important to remember that 3D printing, for all its promise, still remains a long way away from replacing the most conventional subtractive machining processes. It’s further still from supplanting net shape or near-net shape processes like casting and molding. And though these limitations are being addressed via advances in 3D printing technology, undoubtedly, there will always be some downsides. Still, the numerous benefits to be had in adopting the additive manufacturing practice are hard to ignore, and the immense amount of opportunity for rapid prototyping that 3D printing has created is undeniable.
Regardless of what side of the “additive” fence you fall on, it’s hard to argue that 3D printing has been a truly revolutionary innovation within the manufacturing industry.
At Panova, we make it our business to know and understand the pros and cons of these advances so that we can properly advise and guide our clients. We’ve enabled our clients to experience the benefits of 3D printing first hand, as we’ve employed our in-house 3D printers to aid in the product design and development of many custom components. Our printers have allowed us to reduce their projects’ needs for part revisions and engineering hours, and have greatly increased the rate at which we develop and deliver their products.
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