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The advent of 3D printers offers so much potential in a number of disciplines, from creating bespoke on-demand bone implants to printing aircraft parts: it may even play a role in helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste dumped worldwide. It has the ability to transform – or disrupt – every major industry, but for all its promise, there is still one major stumbling block: 3D printing is expensive.
It’s thought that one day, every home will possess a 3D printer and owners will print everything from plastic cups to jewelry to spare parts for the dishwasher! 3D printing is changing the way things are manufactured but its cost is preventing it from being a truly life-changing technology. Despite being around for over 25 years the cost of owning, running and maintaining a 3D printer has not reduced enough for them to be widely affordable.
Initially, purchasing a 3d printer can be very high expensive with commercial grade equipment costing thousands of dollars. These meticulously engineered and manufactured machines are produced in limited numbers and their cost will only decrease if and when the greater volumes are sold and cheaper methods and materials are developed. It might be possible to reduce their cost by replacing some of the common parts of the printer with less expensive alternatives, but this has the potential to affect the functionality and performance of the machine, and no one wants increased maintenance costs coupled with a sacrifice in quality.
Materials required to actually ‘print’ are expensive. Filaments used in commercial grade printers are considerably costlier than commodity materials at the lower end of the spectrum, and whether it be plastic, metal or even glass, filaments require extra processing before they can be used.
Improvements also need to made to the materials – most printers use plastics which melt easily and fit into small molds, but isn’t particularly sturdy making it unsuitable for household products with moving parts. Ideally, printers would need to use carbon composites or metals to be truly useful to manufacturers and the average consumer.
Depending on the scale of the project, the materials used and the quality of the printer it can take anywhere from a few hours to several days for an object to be made. While 3D printing is great for mass customization, it is too slow to print lots of objects – production time needs to be sped up considerably to achieve a completed object in a matter of minutes.
More User-Friendly and More Applications
The 3D printing industry is progressing rapidly – new filaments mean that we can now print objects not previously possible while new software with friendly, intuitive interfaces allow even beginners to design a 3D model. However, there is still a long way to go before 3D printers become a common household item – they are still highly specialized with numerous parts and need to become even more user-friendly and simpler to operate.
While 3D printing has many uses - action figures and phone cases aside - some of these are quite a niche, like printing bespoke bone replacements for people undergoing surgery. There needs to be a greater number of useful and impactful applications to encourage consumers that a 3D printer is a worthy investment.
What is long anticipated is a breakthrough consumer model. While there are relatively cheap 3D printers available at a cost of around $300, it is very basic and print quality is poor. Many 3D printers and their parts are still subjected to patents; once these expire it’s likely there will be more competition, innovation and hopefully, a fall in price and only then might we expect to see a 3D printer in every home.
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