Over the last few months, we’ve seen story after uplifting story of 3D print manufacturers, service providers, educators, students, and many others who’ve used 3D printing technology to fill the dire need of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid shortages around the globe. Suddenly, 3D technology is making headlines daily due to the incredible benefits those in the manufacturing industry have been aware of for years.
The seemingly sudden usage, reliance, and newsworthiness of 3D printing’s role in filling a manufacturing gap could be a significant sign that the technology is poised to take a leading role in manufacturing across industries.
3D Printing During the COVID-19 Pandemic
3D printing is by no means a new technology. The first patent for 3D printing was issued in 1986. Over 30 years later, 3D printing is now found in nearly every industry, from medical and manufacturing to food services.
However, as COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe and hospitals and healthcare centers scrambled to acquire PPE for their staff, 3D printing filled a role traditional manufacturing could not. Leading 3D printing technology providers like Ultimaker and HP developed initiatives to provide pre-approved 3D print designs and then connect hospitals and health care providers with local 3D print hubs to get them the parts they needed.
Through these initiatives and from the help of educators and students, thousands of 3D printed medical parts, face shields, ear savers, and other PPE are now in hospitals around the world.
How is 3D Printing Transforming Manufacturing?
3D printing has already been used alongside traditional manufacturing methods for years. However, many businesses are now leaning on 3D printing to take on more. 65% of businesses in a report from Sculpteo plan to increase their investment in 3D printing this year. The answer to the increase in investment and usage is found in four unique aspects of 3D printing:
1. The ROI of 3D Printing
3D printing technology continues to advance in terms of capabilities and usability. Businesses looking to invest in 3D printing technology must weigh the cost of the 3D printer(s) against the time and money saved on creating parts.
The most significant ROI 3D printing offers are found in:
- Rapid prototyping
- Custom, one-off part creation
- Reduced lead times (during every stage of the design process)
- Faster time-to-market
- Toolmaking (for production lines)
- Use of cheaper, more durable materials
Choosing the right 3D printer for your manufacturing and prototyping projects is a major determinant in the ROI you see in your production. From 3D printers specializing in material types used in dentistry to high volume production 3D printers, there are 3D printer options to fit almost any specialty and need.
2. Rapid Prototyping
Speeding along innovation is another “flex” 3D printing offers. Rapid prototyping allows businesses and individuals to design, test, and quickly fabricate a full-scale model of a physical part in days. With traditional methods, prototyping can take weeks or even months and come with even greater cost constraints.
3. Open-Source Designs
From utilizing open-source designs in the classroom to printing spare parts for household items, the wide range of free STL files and 3D printer models available have opened the door to 3D printing to those who were barred previously due to lack of design knowledge. Open-source designs made the creation of 3D printed PPE even more accessible to those who needed it.
4. New Materials Use
While most 3D printer users get started with basic materials like Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament, 3D printing has moved beyond plastic. 3D printers are now capable of printing with metal, carbon fiber, resins, ceramics, and other more exotic materials. Expanded materials use allows for lower cost, more durable options for medical implants, printed brackets, and even parts for rocket engines. For a list of common materials and assistance finding the right filament for your 3D printed parts and projects, visit this page.
3D Printing in 2020 and Beyond
As 3D printing continues to make leaps in technological advancements, more uses will be found and industries will continue to invest and test the potential of this powerful technology. While the spotlight is still focused on 3D printed PPE and medical parts, many businesses are looking ahead to other opportunities. Sculpteo found that, among the businesses that have used additive manufacturing for over two years and invested at least $10,000 in the technology in the last year, 70% consider 3D technology as a strength and a chance to leap ahead of their competitors. More than a third of those businesses plan to increase their 3D program investment by up to 50%.
From hospitals and healthcare workers in need of PPE to manufacturers looking to increase their output and outrank their competitors, 3D printing offers an innovative solution with unlimited potential.