The hype over 3D printers has been as relentless as it has been ubiquitous: you can’t turn on a TV, radio or computer without hearing yet another breathless story on the new manufacturing technology.
But is it unwarranted? Will 3D printing be the next Internet, the uber-technology that will take over the world, flattening entire industries and reshaping (sometimes literally) the face of manufacturing?
Yes and no. No, 3D printing will not, overnight, displace traditional plastic injection molding — there are just too many issues, chief among them the integrity of the manufactured part itself (there is evidence that 3D printed parts are simply not as strong as plastic injection molded parts) and cost: today’s 3D printer is still much more expensive than a traditional plastic injection molding machine.
But that’s not to say 3D printing hasn’t reached a milestone of sorts vis-a-vis plastic injection molding. For one thing, 3D printing can and does make sense for producing prototypes in record time. While it may take weeks or even months to produce a prototype for a plastic injection molded part, it might take mere hours to produce the same part with a 3D printer.
But there’s more. Some companies are now utilizing 3D printers for the direct manufacture of functional parts in low volumes, typically less than 1000. While this level of production is minuscule compared to the millions of parts which can be churned out by your average plastic injection molding machine, it does represent the proverbial foot-in-the-door for this potentially disruptive technology.
Why is 3D printing making inroads in the low-volume production market? Cost. The price-per-unit of a plastic injection molding machine will often be comparable to the PPU of a comparable 3D printer in these low-volume runs. Then there is the cost of the mold itself, which sometimes can run into the millions. Taken together, these two cost drivers make 3D printing a viable alternative for cash-strapped entrepreneurs who need a prototype quickly in order to attract investors and for those manufacturers who simply don’t need a high-production run.
Will 3D printing ever supplant traditional plastic injection molding? The answer is a resounding “maybe,” but not anytime soon, say industry observers. In fact, some say cost-effective 3D printers capable of churning out millions of parts day-in, day-out, are decades down the road.