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January 15, 2013

The Run-Down on 3-D Printing

By Miguel Leiva-Gomez, TMCnet Contributor

3-D printing has approached a point in which it is becoming a potent source for the self-manufacture of small items. Still, there are many questions regarding its future. Is 3-D printing going to be a commercially viable solution? What will we be able to do with 3-D printers in the household and in commercial spaces? Does this signal the end of the manufacturing industry?

3-D printing is a process by which a mechanical arm deposits material (usually plastic) onto a surface and, layer-by-layer, constructs a three-dimensional model. Some 3-D printers can make non-rigid materials that can contain moving parts by allowing the main chassis to harden before building the other pieces in it. Software usually drives the mechanical arm into the precise locations and sends imaging data to the printer with regards to the model.

So, in what cases does this effectively enhance people's lives?

Image via Shutterstock

In the first place, the purchase of a 3-D printer allows people to affordably enter the business of manufacturing small plastic materials. Inventors can also print up models of their works within a few hours, rather than hand-crafting the model, which can take several days. Factory prototypes also take several weeks to come to life. The only alternative is to use injection molding, which requires a metal cast to be made for melted plastic to be poured inside. 3-D printing is a more economic solution in which the cost of each unit printed is a fixed price.

Ryan Wicker, an engineer at the University of Texas at El Paso, said, "I can cost-effectively make a cellphone cover that is unique to every customer. I could build 100 different ones just as cost-effectively as building them all the same."

Despite the many advantages that 3-D printing brings with it, they still are not viable solutions for complete manufacturing purposes. Since the 3-D printer can only extrude plastic, you have a strict limit on what kinds of products you can make. Even if such a printer could use multiple different materials, you'll need to gather a large amount of each, which is a timely and expensive process. This is probably not happening at any point in the near future. So, how does the future look?

Richard Hague, an expert on 3-D printing at Loughborough University, said that we will probably go to shops that have specialist printing machines, "rather like when people go to specialist shops to get higher quality photos printed." Companies might actually have more affordable means of production and the assembly line might become a thing of the past. But until then, many years will pass and some of us might not live to see such days.

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