Can 3D Printing Democratize Manufacturing?
3D printing, which includes the subdisciplines of FDM (fused deposition modeling), SLA (stereolithography, or resin printing), and SLS (selective laser sintering), has seen rapid evolution in the consumer and industrial spaces over the last ten years. While the technology, especially in the consumer space, is still nascent, technological advances are giving rise to faster, more full-featured, and more reliable 3D printers. What can the average person extract from this technology?
As it turns out, 3D printing tech synergizes with many other industries, from small-scale, single printer environments, to mass-production 3D printer farms. Hobbyist woodworkers can leverage 3D printing to rapidly prototype hardware for furniture, shelving, and other functional wooden designs. Hobbyist gardeners, farmers, and botanists may find that 3D printing allows them to rapidly create and print specialized plastic fittings and adapters for hydroponic systems, or to spin up a design for a seed-starting kit and sell it for a profit.
Doctors and dentists have already used industrial 3D printing technology to decrease the cost and time-to-manufacture of prosthetic devices and dental implants. The technology behind FDM printing is now even used to “print” houses, using the same basic theory that makes additive manufacturing possible.
Of course, 3D printing has its limitations: plastic parts, no matter how strong, are still plastic parts. For certain applications, especially those that demand high temperature resistance or flame retardance, even exotic, so-called “engineering” or “technical” plastics are not tough enough. Enter SLM, or selective laser melting, more generally known as “metal 3D printing”, even though SLM is not the only metal 3D printing technology available today. SLM allows the rapid creation of fully metal parts, most often using a technology called laser powder bed fusion (LPBF). Binder jetting is a more recent development in the world of metal 3D printing, and seems poised to replace LPBF as the favored method of creating metal parts.
Binder jetting is less expensive than LPBF and allows for larger production quantities, more quickly. While binder jetting may be faster than LPBF, the metal parts produced still generally require post-processing, such as removal of support structures, sintering, depowdering, and annealing; these post-processing demands add additional time and complexity to 3D print metal, but still allow for rapid design and manufacture of parts ready to be installed in demanding environments.
The average person has no need (or the budget) for a metal 3D printer, but consumer-grade plastic 3D printers have reached a point at which such printers can be run for long periods of time, fairly reliably, without deep technical knowledge of the process being a requirement. A low-end consumer-grade FDM printer costs around $300 currently, but printers in this price range are not printers we recommend, as they aren’t reliable enough for “set it and forget it” operation, and actually tend to require the printer operator’s having a fair degree of technical knowledge to keep the machine running.
(A timeline of 3D printing technology, source: https://infomineo.com/additive-manufacturing-africa-middle-east/)
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, 3D printing is still very much a nascent technology. While it has been around since the 1980s, 3D printing wasn’t available to the general public until the late 2000s, thanks to an English engineer and mathematician named Adrian Bowyer. Bowyer created the RepRap (replicating rapid prototyper) project with Vik Olliver at the University of Bath in 2005. The RepRap Project was monumental in opening up 3D printing to the public.
The intent behind RepRap was to create a printer that could self-replicate, to the extent that each printer could reproduce all of the printable parts needed to build another RepRap printer. Between 2005 and 2012 the RepRap Project produced 3D printer designs of different sizes and different motion systems, all pushing 3D printing closer to the public consciousness.
Thanks to Bowyer’s work and the open source nature of the RepRap Project, we have what Bowyer himself envisioned when he came up with the idea for RepRap: a democratized, desktop manufacturing and rapid prototyping system that can cheaply create many of the items we need and use in everyday life.
Now, 3D printing is available to many more people than ever before, with a massively lower barrier to entry than other manufacturing technologies, like injection molding. This lowered barrier to entry, combined with the relatively low cost of replacement parts and raw printing materials, are especially desirable in impoverished areas and other low-resource environments, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Owing to the portable nature and relatively low energy requirements of a desktop 3D printer, solar power is a viable option for running a small 3D printer farm.
In a medical setting, such a printer farm could produce splints, face shield hardware, and even anatomically correct models of human organs to help doctors treat patients in the field more quickly, without access to a modern medical facility or reliable electricity.
There are hurdles to be overcome for the desktop/consumer 3D printing sector, chief among them being printer reliability. In 2022, what the average person would consider a truly “reliable” desktop 3D printer, such as the Ultimaker S5, may cost upwards of $7000 and require additional spending on a support contract. That same average person would likely balk at the cost, and rightly so, but at the same time would not be excited at the prospect of constantly maintaining and repairing a $300 printer.
Advances in technology and the generally accepted design of FDM printers will bridge this gap, as we see in other sectors. Even now, companies like Bambu Labs are integrating professional features into consumer 3D printers at attractive prices, but this is only the beginning. In ten years, the state of desktop 3D printing will no doubt be drastically different–it’s entirely possible that, before long, the 3D printer will be as common as paper printers are today.
While the technology may still sound incredibly aspirational to many, consider Adrian Bowyer’s vision in the early 2000s: democratization of manufacturing. When that part in your refrigerator breaks and the company no longer sells it, 3D printing lets you design or download and print a replacement in a couple of hours. Obscure and commodity parts alike are often substantially marked up by their manufacturers, or made intentionally scarce or difficult to find; FDM printing takes away this power from corporations and gives the user a much-needed alternative.
Geek Housecalls has relied on 3D printing for two years now to design and print parts that have been in short supply because of the pandemic and supply chain failures. In spite of the frustrations caused by 3D printers breaking down and needing to be serviced, I see great potential in the technology and in the philosophy behind giving everyone access to repair and make their own stuff. This topic dovetails well with the Right to Repair Movement, which we’ll cover at a later date.