The Rise of 3D Printers will Help Revitalize US Manufacturing
Not unlike the first computers, 3D printers used to take up much space and were as expensive as a house when they were invented by Charles Hull thirty years ago. They are now readily accessible for almost anyone – home 3D printers weigh on an average of 25 lbs and can be purchased for as little as $500. The same printer that was $20,000 ten years ago can be purchased for $1,000 today. As 3D printers become cheaper and easier to purchase, more and more people and manufacturers are joining in on the 3D printing revolution.
3D printers build up objects by spraying liquidized layers of a material according to a programmed design; traditionally the material was a plastic resin, but nowadays the 3D printers can also support other mediums, such as wood, metal, concrete, ceramics, and even food. All sorts of complicated and impressive objects are being created, such as musical instruments, prosthesis, camera lenses, firearms, dentures, and robots. Everyday mundane objects are also being created at home just as frequently, such as containers, phone cases, toys, models, and kitchen utensils. Hollywood is using 3D printing for props including life-size models of expensive cars, and recently a Chinese firm proved that you could build a whole house, including the pipes and wiring, using a large 3D printer, in less than a day, and for less than $5,000. Going above and beyond, they spit out ten of these homes in less than a day.
One interesting program allows the user to print all the parts (except the nuts and bolts) to build another 3D printer, then set that newly-built printer to work building another 3D printer, and so on. With versatility such as this, manufactures only need to invest in one good printer, and the material needed to feed into the printer, then the world is their oyster.
As the trend strengthens, endless choices are popping up in the fields of software, printer capabilities, and product patterns, a lot of them shared as free downloads on user forums, and on popular websites such as http://www.thingiverse.com/. Besides the home based user, we are starting to see a positive upswing in US manufactures that utilizes 3D printers. Now US manufacturers can easily print a prototype in one day, something that used to take a few weeks to complete. They are also saving thousands of dollars, as a 3D printed plastic prototype that costs $80 would have cost $3,000 to be made one time in aluminum. This is giving manufactures an edge– they can create better products faster and can test their products more efficiently and inexpensively before mass producing it for the market.
Besides 3D printing being less expensive and faster, it is a boon to the environment– traditional manufacturing creates a lot of waste as a product is refined by cutting away material, whereas a 3D printer will build up a product, leaving virtually no waste for the landfills.
How will 3D printing affect the US manufacturing scene? According to Professor Richard A. D’Aveni, United States and other Western markets will be able to fill in a gap that China has not been able to fill with it’s large scale mass-production take on manufacturing: flexibility. 3D printing allows for small scale production with an eye on customization and versatility. It is a more efficient way to produce because the product can be made to order, and then shipped locally and quickly with less resources wasted. Professor D’Aveni says that the cost of shipping across oceans is still a detrimental factor in the Chinese manufacturing market and cannot be balanced by it’s underpaid workforce.
With the advent of affordable 3D printers, the trend of the past few decades will reverse and we will start to see jobs coming back to America, and a new vitality in US manufacturing.