3D Printing has been making major waves in just about every industry, hobby, and educational setting from acrobatics to zoology. It has risen to the internet fame level off now being used commonly as a buzzword to make science and technology news more exciting. So, with all the buzz surrounding 3D printing, is it actually that good? How useful is it, really? Is the time and money worth it? Well, the answer is not really that simple. Whether or not 3D printing works for you really comes down to what you are planning on doing.
For me, 3D printing has been invaluable. I use it around the house for small projects, like a rotating spice rack for the kitchen, or a nifty desk organizer so I stop losing pens. At work, it also comes in handy. If a customer sends in an idea for a product at 9am, we can have the first prototypes to them by 5pm the same day. 3D printing also allows us to create small batches of products, without having to spend the tens of thousands of dollars for injection molding moulds, not to mention the months of time it’d take to perfect them.
For you, though, it can be a totally different story. Here is a breakdown of 3D Printing advantages and disadvantages :
3D Printing Advantage
- 100% customizable
- Short turnaround
- In-house workflow
- Diverse material options
- Unlimited geometry options
3D Printing Disadvantages
- Struggles with small details
- Limited build size
- Support Material
- Complex Workflow
- Hard to scale
The first advantage, and the one that embodies 3D printing the most, is the fact that your printer would not just be a one-trick pony. It can print a theoretically endless variety of items, all based on what you design. There are not many limitations on what shape the object is, like there are in many other forms of production. You have the power to create anything, let your imagination run wild. You just have to ask yourself, what will you make first?
The second big advantage is short turnarounds. Like I mentioned above, you can have an idea at 9am, and have the prototype at 5pm. 3D printing started out as a way to rapidly make prototypes for the design phase of products (hence the reasons it is commonly referred to as rapid prototyping or rapid manufacturing in an industrial environment). You can make dozens of iterations of an item, and not have to worry about shipping, lead times, production limitations, etc. Even if you use a 3D printing service like 3DHubs or Shapeways, you may only be dealing with lead times of a day or two. This also means that if you are a hobbyist working on a cool project like an RC car or robot, you don’t have to worry about breaking parts or messing things up. A replacement is always a few hours away!
If you do go for your own 3D printer, the ability to have everything managed internally is a huge deal. You don’t have to work with anyone else anymore to get stuff made. That means that it gets done when you want it.
Affordability is a big one, for businesses and personal users alike. Quick prototypes and usable parts from basic thermoplastics like ABS, PLA, or PETG can be made at an astonishingly low rate compared to other one-off manufacturing techniques, like CNC milling or foam cutting. Even the printers themselves are extremely affordable. You can get a Monoprice Maker Mini for only $200 now!
Even though I’ve only mentioned “boring” materials so far, don’t let that discourage you! There are hundreds of different materials that you can 3D print with, ranging in color and mechanical properties. You can have flexibles, rubber-likes, carbon-fiber reinforced, coffee-flavored, magnetic, electrically conductive, color changing, and even more!! Even though most of these are novelties,many of them can really help to make your project unique, with features such as print-in-place hinges and moving parts, circuits, or parts that’ll dissolve in certain situations.
Compared to other forms of small-scale production, 3D printing also offers the advantage that you can make nearly any geometry you need. Unlike injection molding or reductive manufacturing, where only certain shapes and certain sizes of these respective shapes can be made, 3D printing can make just about anything you throw at it. Tiny, hidden gaps? Internal air pockets? Embedded electronics? All of these are about 100 times easier to accomplish on 3D printing than any other system out there.
All that sounds great, but like I said above, there are disadvantages to 3D printing as well. For starts, the most common form of 3D printing, Fused Deposition Modeling (shortened to FDM or FFF, depending on who you talk to) struggles when it comes to fine detail. Small, intricate parts with features less than 1 millimeter across will usually just end up looking like a pile of overcooked spaghetti. There are some forms of printing that can deal with small details better, like SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) or DLP (Dynamic Light Projection), however they are very expensive compared to FDM, and have much more limited maximum print sizes and material options.
That being said, the maximum print size of most FDM printers is not that great either. Most sub-$1000 printers can only print items that will fit inside of a 200 x 200 x 200 millimeter (8 x 8 x 8 inch) cube. If you want to go larger, there are some printers that can do up to 300 x 300 x 300 millimeter (12 x 12 x 12 inch) cubes for under $1000, however they are few and far between. If you want larger than that, expect the printer price and price for on-demand printing to skyrocket.
One of the biggest pains with 3D printing is support material. The idea behind support material is that since a 3D printer works in layers building up, it can’t just start printing a detail in mid-air. So, supporting columns of material need to be added below that point, to prevent the model from drooping or falling apart. This support material then needs to be removed carefully, as to not cause damage to the part. After it is removed, you will have to sand the area where it was connecting, to flatten out the surface. There are some alternative solutions to this, like PVA supports. PVA dissolves away in agitated warm water, so in theory they will be easier to remove (just drop the whole print into water and leave it overnight).
However, using this method requires a printer that can print multiple materials at once, and PVA can be as much as 10 times more expensive than normal PLA or ABS.
One of the big things keeping 3D printing from making it into the mainstream is the complex workflow. It’s not like printing a paper from Google Docs, where you just hit “Print,” and boom! You’re done. In 3D printing, the average workflow looks like this: CAD > Mesh Checker > Support Generator > Mesh Checker (again) > Slicer > Printer Controller > Printer. Luckily, there are some systems out there that streamline the process, combining a lot of these steps into one, such as MakePrintable.
This last disadvantage only really affects you if you are looking to use 3D printing for mass-production. 3D printing scales horribly. If 1 machine can make 1 part in 1 hour, and you want 100 parts per hour, there are no such things as “faster” 3D printer. You’ll just have to buy 100 3D printers and run them 24/7. Even that will be hard to achieve, because most printers require constant supervision and cannot automatically start a new print when an old one is completed. Also, printers suffer from a fail rate of about 5-15% depending on the specific machine. So, in reality, you’ll end up needing more like 250 machines to make 2400 parts a day, unless you like spending all day and night in the office. If you need this many parts, injection molding may be a better option.
So, there are obviously a lot of things to consider when getting into 3D printing. Overall, I’d say that most people would benefit from it, whether it is for personal, educational, or commercial use. The technology offers tons of possibilities that’ll allow you to turn an idea into reality, faster than ever before.
If you still want to learn more about 3D printing, you’re in the right place! Check out some of the other blog posts here on MakePrintable. They are full of fun 3D printing projects, tutorials about 3D printing and information on how to use MakePrintable to make 3D printing much easier! Start with our 3D Printing Glossary.