Although the future looks very bright for 3D printing, the technology is currently facing a number of hurdles that must be overcome to take it to the next level.
Compared to conventional fabrication techniques, 3D printing is often slower and more cost prohibitive. There are also issues associated with quality and sustainability. For 3D printing to become even more viable in the future, the following issues need to be addressed.
A layer-by-layer production system requires a fixed duration of time to complete, which means that each item takes the same amount of time to produce. With conventional fabrication systems like injection molding, however, production can be automated and items can be quickly mass-manufactured, after the initial development of tools and molds, which reduces the production time.
For short production runs, 3D printing is superior to conventional techniques designed for mass production. However, for scale purposes, traditional systems can easily outpace 3D printing.
For limited production runs, 3D printing is less expensive than conventional production means, since there are just one or two machines required to make an item. There is also less waste with 3D printing than with conventional means, as the object is wholly made, not from a larger chunk of material. Additive manufacturing often doesn’t require further tooling. As a result, the cost per object from a 3D printer is fixed.
However, a conventional mass production system will require less energy over a shorter amount of time to generate a larger number of objects. After the initial cost of developing the necessary tools, the price of an object is usually not much greater than the cost of the material used to produce it. In time, energy efficiency and the higher pace of a traditional sequence will offset the upfront investment in machinery, becoming cheaper than the use of a 3D printing system to generate the same object.
The point where the price of production via 3D printer equals that of using a conventional system will vary based on the objects being produced. This point is known as a “breakeven”, after which a conventional technique becomes more cost effective per unit part than additive manufacturing. In one study done by Xometry, this point was found to be within the initial 150 units of a production run.
As each layer is placed on top of the last in 3D printing techniques, there is a structural weakness to the design. While there are different techniques to design around this issue, quality can be a big concern for those making extremely high-quality parts for industrial purposes.
For some 3D printing techniques, there is also an issue related to layering: stripes generated within an object can diminish the visual appeal. Although, there are methods to finish 3D printed items to make these layers hidden, this calls for more time and energy compared to products made by other means.
The simplest method to overcome these difficulties is to fabricate using laser-based systems at high resolutions. However, this results in objects taking a great deal longer to 3D print, and based on the material, may still require further refining to reach a desired state. Furthermore, such laser-based systems are costly, making them more suited to industrialized businesses and large companies with significant resources.
At some point, 3D printing objects can be outpaced by conventional production techniques of the same items. Therefore, the energy required to run a printer, and the need to refine materials into a useful format offsets initial sustainability benefits of a 3D printer over conventional techniques.
To put it simply, until renewable energy and “greener” processing become more prevalent, a conventional technique of manufacturing can still be more environmentally friendly in the long run when mass manufacturing large quantities of products.
Furthermore, 3D printers that make houses and other large objects need enormous quantities of energy, making the use much less sustainable than conventional techniques for large objects and structures.