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3D Printing: Putting the 'Additive' in Manufacturing

(June 2013) posted on Thu Jun 20, 2013

Can you justify investing in 3D capability?

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By Craig Miller

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, you’ve probably heard a lot of recent news about 3D printing – also referred to as rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing. In fact, if you believe the hype, even sliced bread has now taken a back seat to 3D printing. Soon, you’ll no longer have to go to the store to buy the widget you need; instead, you’ll be able to simply print it with that 3D printer sitting on your kitchen counter next to the coffee maker. Some pundits are calling this capability a spark for the next industrial revolution.

So you’re also likely familiar with the basic concept of additive manufacturing. In short: It’s the creation of a three-dimensional object from a digital model; the object is formed by adding successive layers of material (plastic filaments) in different designs to form virtually any shape. With this process, you can build just about any type of object. Yes, these “printed” objects are often being used as production prototypes, but you can also create finished, one-off objects.

Although this technology seems to have burst onto public awareness just a few months ago, 3D printing has actually been quietly evolving for about three decades. I’ve been fascinated with the concept of 3D printing for a long time, and I’ve worked with some low-end hobbyist kits in the past. This January, I finally bit the bullet: I ordered a factory-built 3D printer, and our company has been printing plastic parts and objects for a few months now.

What caused me to take a bite of the 3D pie? It was the emergence of what I like to refer to as the first “prosumer” 3D printers. Until recently, only two disparate categories of printers were available: On one hand, there were hobbyist models and kits that sold for a few hundred to just over a thousand dollars; at the top of the range, there were professional machines that sold for tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But there was nothing in-between. Finally, though, a few manufacturers began building some machines that were priced in the $2000 to $5000 range – and that price point allowed our company to join in on the revolution.

Peeling back the layers
Let me walk you through the various factors that come into play when it comes to the process of additive manufacturing and its various components and tools.