“The main challenge is with people understanding what is possible and advisable when using 3D printing technology. Additive manufacturing (3D Printing) is not new; it’s been around for over 30 years. Many of the main challenges are still very similar now as they were even 10 years ago.

We have had some advances in the technology, and areas where specific materials, like metal, ceramic and mixed composite materials have made a substantial impact on the medical and jewellery industry. These new machines can process high temperature metals but still cost hundreds of thousands of pounds but offer mass customisation of manufacturing that no other process can match.

 

Reducing cost and time

Many opportunities for the use of 3D printing have already been identified, for example almost all of the outer shells used in custom hearing aids are now 3D printed to perfectly fit each and every customer who has had the inside of their ear 3D scanned and processed into a custom model. This is an example where 3D printing reduces cost and time of producing a single custom part compared to doing each one by hand.

Where cost is not as significant as function or weight, in formula one racing or the aviation industry, we have already seen cooling systems being 3D printed in metals that could not be manufactured in any other way. They reduce weight and improve efficiency of the car or aircraft many fold but at a high cost per unit.

The main challenge has been cost reduction of the basic technology, this has happened due to patents expiring and smaller companies being able to enter the market with new machines aimed at the small business and consumer. More significantly and ironically, advancements in traditional manufacturing and machining have now made it possible for the parts used in 3D printers to be accurate and low cost. The trade-off is still that desktop, home and even small business machines can only really print with resin or thermoplastic materials, they have limited capability for direct use. For example they will melt in a dishwasher and are not safe for use with food.

 3D printing still has a long way to go before it can displace existing mass manufacturing processes. Even for low volumes of a simple injection moulded object, producing the same part with 3D printing takes many times longer and costs more per unit and may not have the same mechanical properties of a moulded part.

For the short and medium term, the main opportunity is still for 3D printing to be used appropriately alongside other manufacturing techniques. Where 3D Printing can make improvements in customisation, or time to market it will have a dramatic impact on almost every industry, craft and manufacturing process we know today. Eventually 3D printing will provide new advanced and fully automated manufacturing methods we can only imagine, it is here to stay and will at some point change the way almost everything is designed and manufactured.”

 

When asked what he sees as the next big thing in 3D? Richard said:

“3D printing constantly has a lot of hype and headline grabbing stories; it’s often hard for people to understand what is actually possible now with 3D printing. If you skimmed over the headlines it would be easy to think bio-printing is being used every day to save lives and grow organs for transplant. Unfortunately most of the stories are hinting towards what may be possible over the next few decades.

We have no doubt that 3D printing will change medical science, health and the way products are made in the long term and one of the big things happening right now is with 3D printing being used for custom fitted prosthetic’s, especially for children who grow quickly and require almost constant fitting and manufacture of correctly sized limbs or aids. Organisations like the open hand project and even groups of volunteer enthusiasts like enabling the future can scan, design and 3D print working hands, back braces and many other things at a fraction of the cost using traditional methods.”

The 3D Printing Association