Rapid Prototyping is aggressively transforming manufacturing industries, posing an intensive threat to conventional approaches. Despite a costly investment, manufacturers continue to adopt rapid prototyping as a means to evaluate the product design effectively. Although, the first application of rapid prototyping technology dates back to the early 90’s, the usage significantly gained momentum since the evolvement of 3D printing. From customized jewelries, medical implants to sculptures and complex mechanical devices. Think of anything you can and the same can be built without any special tools, simply with the push of a button. This may sound futuristic, but its application has already been wide-spread.
So, where is rapid prototyping progressing and what is its future? Being a boon for manufacturers, will it kill the conventional manufacturing techniques completely? Or, will it open a whole new set of opportunities for faster, cheaper product innovation?
The significance of 3D printing in rapid prototyping is quite notable, mainly because of its flexibility against bulky CNC machines and rapid reach to mass community, making 3D printing a household name. A market report from IDTechEx predicts the global 3D printing market to grow at least $7 billion by 2025. This may prove right, as with the expiration of patents, smaller companies are increasingly reaching household consumers with the development of cheap desktop applicable 3D printers. The Google search trends clearly show how a small company like MakerBot quickly surpassed 3D prototyping giants like Stratasys and 3D Systems, prior to being bought out ultimately by Stratasys for $400 million.
Its reach in the consumer market can be sensed by a social community platform Thingiverse, where an increasing numbers of enthusiasts are showcasing their creativity using 3D printers. However, a more practical example is the usage of a 3D printed variable geometry turbo charger in Koenigsegg’s One:1 hypercar. However, medical science is one of the most benefited domains due to the advent of 3D printing technology. Developing customized medical implants to suit particular patients seems to be an incredible breakthrough in healthcare.
The future of 3D printing, however, relies heavily on the ability to produce metal and composite parts, rather than dummy plastics that can be hardly find a practical use. At this point in time, one of the biggest challenges of 3D printing is to develop an ability to squirt different materials from the same printer head, in order to ensure that the part is tailored as per the designer’s need. Additionally, the printed material must adequately possess the properties required, such as thermal and electrical conductivity, stiffness, strength, etc. The concept of building such technology is however simple: decomposing the part into a smaller number of volume units and telling the printer which material to squirt at each point. Yet, developing such technology is much more difficult than it sounds.
So then, the excessive proliferation of rapid prototyping again poses a threat to traditional manufacturing approaches. The question on whether the conventional methods will become obsolete in coming years is certain and can be guessed by anyone. Tool operators may find themselves jobless as rapid prototyping technology is ramping up its pace. But, this change has still a long way to go; at least a decade more, as technologists overcome the challenges in producing products with different materials.
An immediate impact though shall be on the plastic industry, as an increasing number of people will build household plastic items by themselves in a customized way. This process of transformation is expected to raise copyright and privacy issues that may not be able to be adequately tracked. The ability to print anything may have its advantages, but also could be quite hazardous. 3D printing plastic guns and weapons like knives would only make the situation worse. This again raises the necessity of monitoring the distribution of 3D printers among the customers.
However, one thing is for sure: rapid prototyping, especially 3D printing, is about to bring a profound change in manufacturing and promote innovation without the intervention of tools. The definition of mass production might change from manufacturing identical parts in numbers to producing numbers of individual customized parts rapidly. What are your thoughts? How long before the face of manufacturing is forever changed? Discuss in the 3D printing and manufacturing forum thread on 3DPB.com.
About Author: Nikunj Patel is a design engineer working with Hi-Tech CADD Services for the past 4 years. He loves designing specialized industrial equipments and can always be found in the lab discussing, brainstorming & tweaking designs. He has also worked on AEC and Industrial projects taking interest in every aspect of design & analysis.
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