3 Obstacles to the Growth of 3D Printing

3d printer in actionWhile we’re edging closer and closer to the proliferation of 3D printing in daily life, most homes today do not have 3D printers crafting new dinnerware or shoes at the touch of a button. Ornaments, sure, and even some cool phone cases or work with prosthetics are being manufactured using additive processes, but we aren’t at the level of world integration yet.

However, Stratasys says that we may be closer than ever before to a future where we can 3D print anything we want: “3D printing is starting to prove that it could be more than a fad, and actually affect manufacturing, healthcare, and even the supper table. But for now, unless you want some very uncomfortable plastic sneakers or pancakes for dinner, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer for the future to arrive.”

Manufacturers have already begun to see a cultural shift in the way we think about creating products thanks to 3D printing, and many have implemented the technology into their own factories in some way. However, there are still challenges that additive manufacturing must overcome in order to integrate into mainstream commercial production. Right now, the primary value of most 3D printers is in creating prototypes, which is certainly a worthy and very valuable endeavor.

So, in order for “the future to arrive” (in the words of Stratasys), what exactly needs to happen? What challenges does 3D printing need to overcome? Which problems must be solved before 3D printing can become a mainstream mode of production, rather than the prototype go-to?

Printing Metal Parts: Right now, 3D printing can be done easily and inexpensively when plastic is used. However, as 3D printing journalist Jelmer Luimstra explains, “Metal printers won’t soon enter the average living room, as they are much too expensive for individuals to buy. These printers can easily costs tens of thousands of dollars, and are being used by big companies for professional purposes.”

Once we’ve figured out how to make metal printing machines cheaper, we still need to make them faster, too. Today’s printers can take days to print metal, depending on their size, which is clearly not a feasible option. Today, new sintering machines can use metal powders to create parts (see the new Fusion 3DF150 here), but even those move quite slowly: The Fusion’s build rate is between 5-40 square centimeters per hour.

Quality Standards: As when any new technology is introduced, concrete standards for safety and regulation must be the next step. Just last month, the American National Standards Institute and America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, announced their standardization collaborative to coordinate additive manufacturing standards across the industry.

“Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that the additive manufacturing industry requires an independent set of standards,” hence the establishment of the newly announced AMSC. According to America Makes and ANSI, the AMSC will serve to “coordinate and accelerate the development of industry-wide additive manufacturing standards and specifications consistent with stakeholder needs and thereby facilitate the growth of the additive manufacturing industry.” Growth will be more likely, and more possible, when there are concrete standards that manufacturers must uphold.

Lack of Expertise: When Stratasys surveyed existing professional users of 3D printing to see what they felt the obstacles to widespread adoption were, equipment costs, manufacturing costs, and lack of formal standards all made the list. However, another common concern was the lack of in-house additive manufacturing resources and lack of expertise and/or training among employees. In other words, there’s a “knowledge gap” between the technology available and the people who know how to use it that must close before 3D printing can be a common method of manufacturing product.

GE just built their own additive manufacturing facility in Pittsburgh, creating 50 jobs and showing support for the potential success of the industry. Widespread adoption of 3D printing may very well be possible, but these are just a few of the obstacles it has to overcome first.

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photo credit: 3D printing, IFA 2015 via photopin (license)