3D Printing is Metamorphosizing the Manufacturing Sector. Here’s Why That’s Important.

By now you’ve heard the buzz about 3D printing, the disruptive technology that’s changing the game for product designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. But how does 3D printing work, and why is it so important?

3D Printing Process

3D printing is a process by which a material can be “printed” in thin layers according to a digital file to create a 3D object. The process starts with a design file in a CAD software, which is then broken down digitally into thousands of “slices”. There are multiple types of printers that utilize different materials and have benefits and drawbacks for different purposes. 3D printing can be done with a wide array of materials including plastics, metals, resins, ceramics, and even food. Even though the technology has been around since the 1980’s, it is taking off in popularity due to lower costs and greater access.

3D printing has specialized uses in the medical field, aviation, aerospace, and of course as an art form, but it is the manufacturing sector that may see the biggest impacts from this potentially revolutionary technology.

In order to understand the impact of 3D printing in the big picture, it’s important to understand what’s happened to the manufacturing sector in North America in the last several decades. Especially notable in the apparel industry, manufacture gradually moved overseas to China and other developing nations, which were able to drive prices lower by employing cheaper labour. This practice, of course, came with many drawbacks including widespread human rights abuses, and an influx of cheaply made, low quality goods. This culture of disposable consumerism (sometimes nicknamed “fast fashion” or “McFashion”) has led to massive amounts of discarded waste entering landfills, oceans, and ecosystems. As overseas production gained a hold over the manufacturing sector, North American producers were left with few options, and high quality, locally crafted goods began to disappear. For product designers, having a prototype manufactured overseas was expensive, time consuming, and often required a minimum order of thousands of units. The cost for emerging designers was prohibitive.

Multicoloured spools of plastic filament used in fused deposition modeling type 3D printing.
Multicoloured spools of plastic filament used in fused deposition modeling type 3D printing.

Enter 3D printing, and a process called rapid prototyping. In this process the consumer never sees the 3D printed object. The product developer uses 3D printing to prototype the concept and check for flaws before the design is shipped off for large-run manufacturing. Rapid prototyping eliminates so much of the time and cost at the prototyping phase that it levels the playing field for product designers who lack a huge amount of startup capital. Startups and entrepreneurs now have access to the necessary technology to compete with big corporations. Essentially, 3D printing is democratizing the product design sector.

3D printing may not yet replace injection molding and overseas production, but it is laying the groundwork for greater access to locally made, quality, sustainable products. The impacts for the North American manufacturing sector could be huge. With the lowered costs provided by 3D printing, a new generation of product designers with a new flow of ideas can enter manufacturing sector. Now, with an idea and a CAD design file, entrepreneurs can have a prototype made overnight. The future is wide open, and the 3D printing revolution is only just starting to take off.