Manufacturing

Unknownpleasurescur23D printing has been used for prototyping in manufacturing industries ever since the mid eighties. As the technology reaches a consumer friendly price point and new materials and techniques begin to emerge, more and more uses are generated for it in and out of factories.

As the process is driven by Computer Aided Design software (CAD) items can be modified without the need to retool which can be an expensive process, reducing the time from concept to prototype significantly. The use of this software incorporates a level of consumer customisation and a broader selection of designs that can be produced. It also becomes quicker and cheaper to print parts locally which would normally have to be shipped from abroad, reducing logistical costs.

3D printing in manufacture re-evaluates the concept of economies of scale as items only need be produced when they are in demand. The necessity to produce thousands of an item to cover costs is lost, which makes starting a business less risky and more accessible for those without strong financial backing.

Companies like Shapeways facilitate this paradigm shift. They provide an online market place for 3D printed items. Upload your design to their site, designate a price and Shapeways will print and post to who ever buys your item. You sit back, and watch your money roll in. This adds more weight to the quality of an idea away from the scale of an operation, potentially decentralising markets monopolised by large established companies.

The shift from prototyping to the production of finished parts or entire products will have various implications. It raises important questions on intellectual property and copyright issues. For example what is to stop somebody replicating and counterfeiting designer eyeglass frames and selling them for a fraction of the cost? Although counterfeiting is already rife today, 3D printing will make it easier. Will initiatives like Spotify and iTunes that aim to combat music piracy, translate over to 3D printing, a future where you can download official merchandise to print yourself?

When it comes to mass-production 3D printing is still not as cost effective as other mass-production techniques. Production costs will continue to fall as years go by and machines will be able to accommodate the printing of more items, which could lead to a wider adoption in industry. It wont succeed current techniques of production immediately or maybe in the future however they certainly have a place along side other production technologies of the moment.

*One interesting new use of 3D printing within the manufacturing field is that of solar energy. Companies have been able to print solar cells onto paper without the need for a complex printer; the paper can be folded and bent without damaging the cells. Scientists at CSIO in Australia have translated this onto large sheets of flexible plastic, which they hope to install on office buildings and houses, presenting a cheaper, more dynamic alternative to current solar panels.

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