3D Printing – A panacea to all manufacturing problems? Not exactly!

3D printing has taken the world by storm. 3D Printing has become a more popular terminology these days for additive manufacturing process. Additive manufacturing process has been in existence for a few decades now and focused mainly for developing rapid prototypes of parts. With the advancement of technology, the additive printing machines have become much smaller and portable, which has helped it gain much popularity. There are hobby ‘3D printers’ available from several manufacturers now which can be connected to desktop computers and user can print parts just as they print a document. Sounds so simple, isn’t it?

Additive manufacturing is a process which slices the geometry of the part into layers and then builds it layer by layer. So it is radically different from the conventional manufacturing processes involving removal of material. The user is able to print complex shapes using additive manufacturing which otherwise would require expensive tooling to produce or even impossible to manufacture using conventional manufacturing processes. People have been talking about printing an entire aeroplane using 3D printing. Also, in medical science, there are predictions that 3D printers will be able to print human organs using stem cells as the input material!

Does it mean that all you ever knew about manufacturing is about to change forever? Nope.

The accuracy of the parts printed using 3D printers depends upon geometry of part and operator expertise.  The parts often require finishing operations after printing to achieve the required accuracy. There are two major reasons for this. One is that the user needs to fine tune the printer settings for the part to be printed. It needs a lot of trial & error in using the printer for printing various shapes.  The geometry of the part is a critical factor in determining accuracy and quality of finish of the printed part. There are some design criteria followed in conventional manufacturing process which need to be followed for parts to be 3D printed as well. If the part has features such as thin wall cross sections, negative draft , the part cannot be printed properly. Attempt to print such parts result in defective or damaged parts which leads to loss of material, time and money. Hence it is essential to validate the part design to check if the part can be printed using 3D printing.

3D printing is surely the future of manufacturing. But when it comes to product design, conventional best practices will still continue to exist. Some of them apply directly while some need to be tweaked for 3D printing process.

Let us look at some of the design rules which can help make parts 3D printing friendly in the next blog.

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