Say you lose the back of your TV remote. You have turned your house upside-down looking for the piece that holds the batteries in, but without any other choice, you surrender and secure a piece of duct tape to the back of the remote. What if you had the option to log onto your TV manufacturer’s website, download the 3D CAD file for the replacement part, send the CAD file to your local FedEx Office, they upload your 3D CAD file to a 3D printer, and you swing by to pick up the part within an hour. This is the possibility that 3D printing brings.
There is a lot of buzz around 3D printing and it is easy to get excited about the potential impact it could have on how things can be made. While the technology is still in the very early stages, 3D printing is nearing becoming a real world application. 3D printing is a tool that can be used to validate a design, ensure pieces fit together properly and even make a product mock-up for marketing. But it is with rare exception that 3D printed parts are the actual products we buy.
The name 3D printing is a misnomer — it is more accurately called additive manufacturing. In traditional manufacturing processes, such as machining, material is removed from a piece of raw material to produce a part, also known as subtractive manufacturing. In additive manufacturing, material is added in small layers, cross section by cross section, to build a part. Think of an inkjet printer with a print head that rises and continually prints on top of the last image it printed. Additive manufacturing can also be achieved by a number of other methods, such as selective laser sintering (SLS).
What are the challenges additive manufacturing must overcome to be a useful industrial tool? Materials and speed. The material choices for additive manufacturing are very limited, and for the most part, the materials are not strong or durable enough to be used in an actual product. The only time this is an exception is when you combine specific types of polymers and metals with specific additive manufacturing processes.