Everyone has heard about 3D printing. It’s one of the most exciting innovations in technology over the last few years because you can create nearly anything you can imagine quickly and easily. The question then is whether or not it will completely replace traditional plastic manufacturing (see previous posts about plastic machining and plastic injection molding). First, it’s helpful to understand exactly what 3D printing is.
What is 3D printing?
In some ways, 3D printing is exactly what it sounds like. Just like a regular inkjet printer takes a digital copy of a document and prints it on paper, a 3D printer takes a digital copy of an object and turns it into a physical, 3-dimensional object.
However, things get a bit tricky when it comes to actually printing the object. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes that create a mold or model in order to create an object, 3D printing takes the digital file and slices it into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers. Each layer is then printed on top of the last, creating a 3-dimensional item.
Different 3D printers use different materials. Plastic is arguably the most popular 3D material, but some machines are also capable of using metals and even polymers.
The benefits of using a 3D printing machine over traditional plastic manufacturing
There are definitely benefits of using a 3D printer over using a traditional manufacturing process. 3D printers really shine when it comes to producing prototypes.
When creating a new prototype in the past, you would have to tool an existing machine, set up a brand new production line, and create a new mold or process for a product that may not pan out in the end. With a 3D printer, there’s no need to create anything new. Simply print out the digital model with the printer. No new machines or processes are needed.
3D printers are also able to prevent waste that is prevalent in more traditional manufacturing settings. Traditional molds require more material than what actually fills the mold, and even sheet metal requires a certain amount of waste. When using a 3D printer, the only material used is what moves through the extruder in the printer to create the object. Waste is completely eliminated.
Why 3D printing won’t replace traditional plastic manufacturing
Even though there are many benefits to using a 3D printer, it will likely never replace traditional manufacturing processes. There are a couple of reasons why this is the case.
Quality of the final product
Because 3D printers essentially break an object into layers, the final product can sometimes be lacking. Each layer can be seen with the naked eye, making 3D printed objects aesthetically displeasing.
Those layers also compromise the overall strength of the object. Layers don’t necessarily bond well, especially along the Z axis. With traditional manufacturing processes, you can create a smooth finish and consistency throughout the object, greatly enhancing its appearance and its strength.
In addition, only certain materials can be used in a 3D printer, and those materials aren’t always appropriate, especially when very strong plastics like G-10/FR4 (45,000 PSI) and FRP (30,000 PSI) are needed. These plastics can’t be utilized by 3D printing technology.
Production speed is compromised
3D printers may be great at creating prototypes, but they aren’t good when it comes to mass production. Traditional manufacturing processes are built and catered to each specific part or object that is being made. For example, stamping can create 22,000 parts per hour while injection molding can create 1,440 pieces per hour. With 3D printing, you’re stuck with the speed at which the printer works, which is almost always slower than a process that is created specifically for the manufacture of a certain piece or part.
Costs can sometimes be higher
This one may come as a bit of a surprise because 3D printing is generally more cost-effective than traditional methods. With no tooling, design, or creation of a specific part or machine that is made for a single purpose, 3D printing can be much cheaper. However, there is no chance for economic savings.
Costs are locked in per pound, which means you won’t save when creating hundreds or thousands of items. The materials for a 3D printer can also be much more expensive than raw materials, which may cause you to spend more to manufacture with a 3D printer over the long run than traditional methods.
3D printing has a lot to offer the manufacturing process, but it isn’t likely to take over traditional methods. It’s more likely that 3D printers will work in conjunction with traditional methods by producing prototypes and creating injection molds. As 3D printers exist today, they won’t replace traditional subtractive machining or injection molding anytime soon.
Choosing the right manufacturing process for plastic fasteners and components for a sensitive and important project can be a real challenge. If you need a little help deciding which option might be best, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re happy to help you ensure your next project is completed without a hitch.