What is 3D Printing Used For?

A number of different types of additive manufacturing are already available for use in directly manufacturing 3D objects using plastic, resin, metal, and many other types of material. This lends itself to several obvious current-use applications, including prototyping, direct digital fabrication, and more.

Rapid prototyping

The earliest use of 3D printing was in the production of digitally-designed objects as prototypes of new designs before production begins. The advantages of rapid prototyping with additive manufacturing are apparent in processes such as these:

  1. Evaluation of a design while it is still in the computer.

  2. After evaluation, creating a solid prototype based on the design that can be handled and operated.

  3. Comparing the printed prototype to components of existing systems to ensure correct fit and function.

Creating a solid object for consumers to evaluate speeds up the rate at which new designs can be compared side by side. 3D-printed versions of alternate designs or iterations can be reproduced and compared much faster than individual examples of each design can be turned out — saving weeks in the production schedule.

[Credit: Image courtesy of FormLabs]
Credit: Image courtesy of FormLabs

Often a prototype does not need the material strength of the final object design, so a plastic or resin design can be used to test an object before investing in the cost and materials required for metal reproduction.

Jewelers and other designers can test their designs in wax or biodegradable plastic for a few cents — and then create only their final model in gold, silver, or other valuable materials, after the client has already approved the fit and function.

[Credit: Image courtesy of the Francis Bitonti Studio (Designer: Michael Schmidt, Architect: Franci
Credit: Image courtesy of the Francis Bitonti Studio (Designer: Michael Schmidt, Architect: Francis Bitonti)

3D-printed prototypes can also illustrate additional details for product evaluation, using color and other indicators, so that information such as stress load or thermal measure within a structured object can be clearly represented for non-technical review. This same capability can be used to show different model design options, to illustrate the visual impact of different artistic or coloring options, and to build marketing materials ahead of production for test audiences.

Direct digital fabrication

The use of additive manufacturing to create prototypes allows for rapid transition through the stages of the design process, but in some cases it does not stop there. With metal fabrication systems, additive manufacturing can be used to create end-use — final — products and designs, rather than just plastic prototypes.

With this approach, details such as serial numbers, branded marketing designs, even interlocking and joined structures, can be included in the physical structure of the product — with no tooling steps needed beyond the 3D-printed output.

Production of a single unique design, called a one-off, or other limited-production runs for specialty products used in racing, medical, and space technologies, can be very costly in traditional manufacturing. Because the same mold or tooling is only used a few times (possibly only one time), there are no opportunities for efficiencies of scale that bring down per-item costs in mass manufacturing of goods.

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Direct digital manufacturing also allows updates to be made in the middle of a production cycle, without re-tooling the production line. Once the digital model has been modified and uploaded to the 3D printer, all future produced items can include the change automatically.

GE has started using this capability in the design of its future aircraft jet engines, where rapid updates can be performed and the line kept in operation to save time overall in the production of high-precision engine components because multiple components can be combined and printed at a single time without requiring the traditional methods of brazing and welding to combine individual assemblies.

Restoration and repair

Additive manufacturing has its place in current direct digital fabrication, but that same function can be used to re-create objects that were once available but have long since been lost from available inventory stocks to make room for the next year's model.

Whether the component is a compressor cover on Jay Leno's steam-powered car or a replacement flipper for a pinball machine, both are long gone for the corner store, even if they were ever available locally to the public. However, by scanning in the broken bits of an existing design or by creating a new replacement part from measurements and CAD design, additive manufacturing can bring new life to outdated designs.

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By creating designs that can take the place of original equipment, it is even possible to improve on the original to make the repaired item quite literally better than it was when it was new — new materials can be used, reinforcements can be added, and any number of modifications can be made entirely within the computer before a part is ever created.

By creating the part in lightweight and inexpensive plastic, its fit can be tested and further adjustments made before a final object is created in material desired.

The amazing potential of this new type of parts management is that manufacturers would no longer need to store copies of all possible parts in warehouses and other locations. Instead, they would simply download the appropriate component design and print out its replacement when needed.

Instead of days or weeks until the proper replacement can be shipped to your local dealership, you could call up the mechanic to schedule a recall item replacement, and they would print out the part to have ready when you arrived on your way home.

A complete warehouse full of individual parts could be replaced by a small shop stocking only raw materials and a bank of 3D printers. No more concerns for items being out of stock, and available options could include different materials for special needs or even personalized designs created by individuals based on standard fittings or connectors.

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