The end of manufacturing as we know it?

What would our economy look like if every home had an additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping system? For example, how would it affect manufacturing? Would it translate into more or fewer jobs? How about transportation? Would we need fewer trucks and fewer distribution centers? What if, instead of everyone having an individual system, rapid prototyping systems were grouped into franchise opportunities, sort of like a “Kinko’s,” and consumers went there to obtain the item they wanted or needed there?

A lot of recent commentary on additive manufacturing technologies has focused on its potential to take us out of our economic downturn. Could these systems really add to the manufacturing job pool? It might depend on how we define “manufacturing job pool,” because a paradigm shift is under way.

In the short term, if you’re a CAD designer, you will likely have more opportunities for employment, as someone needs to create the programs that will enable push-button use. But for those who expect more traditional manufacturing jobs, your prospects for employment may have dimmed rather than risen. Rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing may eliminate jobs, as it lends itself very well to a “do-it-yourself” culture.

While the building of these machines for individual home use would certainly require manufacturing, if home owners had such technology, why would we need manufacturing facilities to build things like door knobs, cups and saucers, garden tools, clothes, lamps, basic furniture, even cars? We would be able to do it ourselves.

And our transportation/distribution segment of the economy might be affected too. In a recent conversation with a spokesman at Stratasys, he mentioned that he had been called by his state’s Department of Transportation about the possible impact rapid prototyping technologies might have on freight shipments—would it reduce the amount transported by trucks or planes? (I applaud the DOT for thinking about this now.) On the one hand, it is highly likely that rapid technologies will reduce the amount of goods shipped to retail stores. But it is also likely that instead of retail products, our transportation industry would ship the powdered materials used by these systems to retailers, who would stock them, and the home user would come in and buy the materials they needed for their systems. For transportation, a 3D printer in every home might have minimal impact.

A recent report by a stock analyst who commented on Stratasys’ recent stock performance, noted that this industry is one all stock traders should watch; “Additive manufacturing has the potential to be truly transformative,” he said in a recent blog.

I think it already is transforming manufacturing, but many may not have noticed yet.

The analyst continued, “Major economic revolutions, … are driven by products or services that totally upend the pervasive business models. The use of these systems has now evolved beyond rapid prototyping into actual production. The economics of this evolution are extremely attractive. … 3D printing eliminates almost all of the risk in making changes to products. Retooling costs have dropped close to zero and material waste is virtually eliminated.” He goes on to mention that manufacturers can produce thousands of custom products at a time at lower costs than traditional batch run processes.

But now we need to redefine “manufacturer.” Is a manufacturer someone with a large building, lots of machining equipment, and lots of capacity? Or is it the engineering firm developing prototypes, who now has the capacity to make the product without going to the more traditional manufacturer. Or will it soon be the individual homeowner who can print a replacement or original part and no longer have to go to Home Depot, Lowes, WallMart, Target, or other store?

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Comment by Leslie Langnau on April 1, 2011 at 8:37am
Nice comments everyone.  Bo, you took the time to put in a lot of good points--areas that 3D printer vendors will have to address before this becomes as common as a PC printer in every home.  Thanks all!
Comment by Leslie Langnau on April 1, 2011 at 8:27am

Recycling will become an issue.  It sort of is, but not many are talking about it.  Engineers are being encouraged to make lots of prototypes, but those parts are not necessarily recyclable because of the binders and other materials.  If everyone has a 3D printer machine, that will be the next issue: recycling. 


Comment by Dana Patelzick on March 31, 2011 at 4:31pm

Very sci fi.  The day is coming where something like this will be in use. For one off parts, like a part for your antique auto. Or for something that you created and is uniquely yours. Or perhaps for something you don't want anyone to know about (like a weapon). 

Are we going to build a lot of cool things that are highly reliable or will we make a lot of junk that will last a short time then is discarded (hopefully easily recycled)?  I look at the devices that we build - they are difficult to make,  If they were easy to manufacture and therefor anyone could make them then we would not be in business. The level of sophistication to build some things probably is not coming out of one individual rapid prototype machine but more like a group or family of machines that do different things.  That will be expensive and would point to an engineering/ manufacturing firm.

Probably the place to be in the future is building the machines that build  machines or parts. Next would be making the feed stock for those machines and then there is the software and recipes for making parts.

Comment by Jason Gibbs on March 31, 2011 at 3:09pm

Paradigm shifts can be crummy, yet amazing things.  They tend to hurt some, but benefit others (hopefully more than they hurt).


We live in a world of convenience.  With the current economy, people also want low costs.  If I can read a book online and pay a fraction of the price, then why bother buying a published book?  Please note: I don't currently feel this way, I like to have something a little more tangible in front of me when I read a book.  But the same idea exists regarding manufacturing.  If I could make myself a custom part faster and cheaper, I would probably use a personal 3D printer.


This is where the whole convenience thing (aka laziness factor) comes in; if it's not custom, why would I spend hours designing a part and printing it, when somebody else is making it in bulk, and the safety/design factor is already taken care of?  We are also somewhat limited in the materials we can use with a basic 3D printer - mainly thermoplastics.  This limits maximum strengths and temperatures.  I know there are ways to form and sinter powdered metals, but then you require a furnace with high temperatures.


On the other hand, owning a 3D printer isn't much different than having another tool in my workshop.  For example, I have the tools in my garage to make wooden book shelves, and access to wood -- but I also have the convenience of a store close by where I can buy shelves completed (with better craftsmanship in my case).

Comment by Burrell (Bo) Clawson on March 31, 2011 at 3:03pm

Good article, but as a product designer for over 40 years and one who uses SolidWorks to generate my 3D models and job shops for rapid prototyping a lot, there are significant points missing here.


1.  Design of 3D models:  It takes engineering training and a heck of a lot of practice to do good models and "do it yourself" with your own 3D CAD and machine would be very expensive for a normal home, even with the smaller RP machines.  You have to know the process to be able to design the part to optimize what end result you need.

2.  No one RP machine does it all:  ABS, Nylon, Polycarbonate, elastomers, metals, starch like plastic and paper are all available for RP processes.  STL Nylon takes a very well trained operator to use it and costs in the 6 figure range but do make very tough nylon parts.  I use RP models created on 3 or more machines for a typical project.

3.  Surface finish:  Most RP models are full of micro voids and visible construction layer marks on the finished products.  The are not suitable for use without post-processing which can take a large amount of time.

4.  Accuracy of parts:  Layer thickness, material deposited, particle size & process speed determines how accurate RP models can be.  They typically are no better than + or - .003 to = or - .01".  When RP machines are not calibrated and run properly the tolerances get get really out of hand, even on multi-hundred thousand dollar machines.

5.  Plastic RP Part Durability:  Many RP "plastics" have limited strength and flexibility.  In other words, they crack easily.  Molding a part that needs a living hinge as an RP part today doesn't work on the machines I've tried so far.

6.  Color:  Surface finish and color of most RP parts is relatively restricted or non-existent.  Natural resin color is common.  White or Black in some plastics is common.  Some machines offer colors but the parts are not of structural strength quality for functional parts.

7.  Edges, Corner Radii, Snap Fits:  Edges won't be sharp like machined or molded parts.  Corner radii will have a certain amount of roughness.  Very few RP resins can make RP parts with functional snap fits.  For my uses none have worked well enough to say they are good, even just for a quick test.

8.  Strength and part integrity:  Only laser sintered Titanium or Stainless Steel appears to have near 100% solid structural strength and properties.  The only plastic I know that has near the same RP part properties of an injection molded production part is Nylon.  Most other RP polymers are a custom plastic formulation designed to optimize either speed, surface finish, coloring, strength and similar properties.


My summary is that shared or home DIY RP parts generation is pie in the sky at this point.  Go into any  RP job shop with a wide array of machines and watch them work and look at their demo parts for a day, and it will become quite clear what is going on with the world of RP parts.



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