3D Printing and the Wild West

3D printing has been making a lot of news recently. To listen to the news, we are only a few short years from being able to “print” anything. Just like Star Trek…. And it is a bold new frontier in every sense.

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Probe holder – client prototype

Without a doubt, all forms of 3D printing are revolutionizing the world of design as well as the world of manufacturing. Printing prototypes that both look pretty and help us to understand complex shapes has become old hat. Now we can make functioning parts that go into working assemblies. In some cases, we are printing final product in nylon, stainless steel or even titanium.

But this new frontier in manufacturing is a lot like the frontier of the old west – there is plenty of opportunity but it is paired with plenty of opportunity to be taken advantage of. If you don’t know how to fill in all of the details, there is a good chance you will spend several hundred dollars to print a part that you can’t use.

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Rodent skeleton – non-engineering client request

Can’t imagine how this new technology might stampede out of control? Here’s an example:

So you’ve got a part to be printed for your new invention. Wonderful!! What material do you want? Does it need to be flexible or rigid? What kind of surface finish do you need? What kind of print resolution do you need? Can it be porous or do you want it to be watertight?Once you decide what material and process you want, how about the shape? In some cases you can cut your printing cost in half simply by removing some of the non-functional material, and get a more accurate part as a bonus. Once you get your printed part, can it be made in production, or did you just print something that is too expensive to make in high volume production?

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Ball joint – client part

These are just a sampling of the questions that should be asked in the process of getting a prototype printed. A print service that makes its money strictly by printing as much material as possible probably isn’t going to ask you those questions.

If you work in the world of design, please, step up and partake in the feast. But don’t try to go it alone. Find someone who cares about your final outcome enough to scout your way through the new Wild West.

Want to read more? Great article on 3D printing myth vs reality here.