If you believe the press, 3D printing is about to launch another industrial revolution. Gone will be big factories, and everyone will satisfy their need for physical things with a 3D printer in their own home. Those who realize not everyone wants to be a “maker” or “hacker”, concede that there will still be “factories” but of a new design. Like Shapeways in New York, next generation factories will only have 3D printers and each person will email in their CAD file for a personal take on a particular product they want. Sounds pretty cool!
Reality is somewhat more complex. While 3D printers utilize powerful technology with unique capabilities, it is not the replicator that we’ve hoped for since first seeing the space age machine on Star Trek. Yes, 3D printing can make some consumer products in one piece like a birdcage with a swinging bird inside. But speed is an issue and if you need 100 or 1000 identical parts, cost would be prohibitive.
3D printing is optimal when customization is important, such as medical braces and prosthesis that can be formed to the patient’s body for a perfect fit that does not cause blisters. In manufacturing, 3D printing shines when speed is not an issue, as in rapid prototyping. The CAD files can be easily changed so that engineers can try out new designs. But even then, 3D printing may not be the total solution.
Companies in the business of manufacturing know that choosing the right process for the job is key to producing the best products. And often, products demand multiple processes. Such is often the case with 3D printing. By integrating 3D printing with other technologies on the factory floor, companies can have the best options available for meeting customer needs.
Potomac Photonics of Lanham MD often integrates 3D printing with laser micromachining or micro CNC machining. Potomac President and CEO Mike Adelstein has found that, “by integrating multiple tools, we can then spend our time on the more challenging aspects of the job, rather than trying to get the wrong tool to work.”
The Maine FabLab, [www.MaineFabLab.org], is a non-profit digital fabrication laboratory in the MIT FabLab model. Contact us via Twitter at @maineFabLab Potomac Photonics [www.potomac-laser.com] has almost 3 decades of microfabrication experience and also operates the MicroFabLab, [www.microfablab.com] a rapid prototyping and innovation center. The company’s services include 3D printing, laser and CNC micromachining, micro-molding, marking, assembly and packaging.