The reality of 3D printing

Ever since they first emerged, much has been said and heard regarding 3D printers. The idea of a machine that can replicate any object and quickly create a new product is highly attractive for many reasons, cost-effectiveness being just one of them. With everything from small houses to food now being ‘printed’, the 3D printer seems to be both a manufacturing and design miracle, able to tackle any task and ready to produce whatever is required.

So goes the hype surrounding 3D printing. The reality however may be somewhat different, especially from the point of view of serious product designers. It is undoubtedly true that 3D printing will find its niche; all technology does and, with home printers now being made available for less than £1,000, one can expect small, garage industries to spring up in every community. For serious product design work though, there are equally valid arguments that more costly traditional prototyping methods may be preferable.

TRIG Creative is a well established product design company which is ISO 9001 accredited and was also shortlisted in the Design Week 2011 Awards. From conception to delivery, TRIG Creative watch over the birth of new products, carefully checking every step of every process. It is precisely this type of company that 3D printing technology needs to convince, if it is to be taken seriously. The relatively low resolution, plastic products currently produced by 3D printing may be useful as rough visual models but, when it comes to a serious design prototype, many professionals believe that there is still a long way to go.

Although 3D printing using materials other than plastic is possible, it is also expensive. For example, 3D printing using Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) has been available for some years now. DMLS uses powerful laser technology to effectively fuse metal powder into a solid component. However, the process is very expensive and only financially viable in high end manufacturing, such as aircraft production. The cost of DMLS will come down over time but it is likely to be some years yet before small precision engineering companies are replaced by a 3D printer.

Another problem with conventional ‘plastic’ 3D printing is that design prototypes with moving parts will still require any metal components to be produced conventionally; the strength of 3D plastic is also questionable. Whilst the 3D revolution offers anyone the opportunity to produce low run, plastic items from their kitchen, professional design companies are likely to wait for some time before seriously considering dipping a toe into the 3D water. Making one off, low-res cereal bowls using a home 3D printer and open source CAD software, is not what professional companies do.

Few people would deny that 3D printing is here to stay and the technology will continue to develop. The current hype though seems to be directed more at replication than with product innovation, thus presently ruling out 3D printing as a serious product design tool. As for the future, one will hear many things in the months and years to come; whether the truth is among them however, only time will tell.

For advice on production methods for your product please contact us or give us a call on 0113 2580110.