There has been a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing. It’s definitely an exciting technology. There are plenty of amazing things that can be created using 3D printers, and it’s increasingly available across the nation and around the world. Even though it is a growing technology with huge potential, though, 3D printing probably won’t be replacing factories any time soon.
One of the biggest reasons that 3D printing has blown up is due to its accessibility. 3D printers are available to consumers. If you have an extra thousand dollars lying around, you can purchase a low-end printer and start cranking out bouquets upon bouquets of plastic flowers or whatever plastic trinket your heart desires. It’s not a technology that is limited to manufacturers or professionals in a specific field. It’s inherently easier to get gung-ho about something that you can potentially access, so consumers feel excited about it at a pitch they might never reach for servo motors.
Another reason why people are excited about 3D printing is because of the incredible things that are being produced. Prosthetic limbs, food, clothing, machine parts, and musical instruments are all being created with 3D printers. The sheer variety, complexity, and usefulness of these items is entirely appealing.
3D printing offers potential for more sustainable manufacturing. It has the benefit of lower transportation costs and reduced emissions, lower waste, and more efficient prototyping, but at the moment there is one enormous barrier to its use in manufacturing: economy of scale.
More specifically, there isn’t any. The 100,000th blue widget you make will costs just as much as the first one.
3D printing has made prototyping much more practical, and things that are usually made in small quantities, like jigs and molds, can be made faster and just as cheaply with 3D printing. But that’s about getting to market faster, not about making things for end-use consumers.
So far, 3D printing has been more about a “look what we can do” mentality than “this is how things should be done.” It’s been more to impress than to be practical.
Until the emphasis on 3D printing technology is practicality, it won’t really be a viable alternative to factory manufacturing. There is the definite potential for printing to be the main means of production, but it doesn’t look like it will be happening any time soon.