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3D Printing: The Future of Plastic Prototyping Or Simply A Fad?

Mar 9, 2015

3DPrintingIf you are a product manufacturer or engineer directly connected with the plastics industry, it is likely you are aware of 3D printing and the impact it has made within rapid prototyping. It is a technology that has been highly discussed and debated in regard to its fast turnaround, minimal cost and role in the overall manufacturing process.

If you are not familiar with 3D printing, it is the process of making a solid object of various sizes and shapes from a digital model. The object is created through an additive process, where layers of material are laid down in different shapes. This process is different from traditional machining techniques that rely on the removal of material by cutting or drilling.

Despite the incredible advancements in 3-D printing and plastic prototype development, this method of rapid prototyping may not be a game-changer for most manufacturers in the industry. 3-D printing is a low-risk, low cost, supplemental option that will rarely produce a prototype that can function as the finished product as it is intended. Designers and engineers are also faced with challenges in regard to product specification modifications, material selection and more. Here are a few facts regarding 3-D printing’s role as the future of, or a fad within the rapid prototyping industry.

Is 3-D Printing The Future?

In the prototyping stage of product development, 3-D printing is known to be the fastest and most efficient way of creating a prototype part, prior to the manufacturing step of the process. Using 3-D can provide significant cost savings and limit risk in up-front costs. It is widely acknowledged that 3-D printing is best used in early design and the visualization of part models. 

The major advantage of 3D printing is in the area of creating one-run parts for which you don’t have to create tooling. Additionally, many features can be assessed early in the design process with 3D printing, such as form, fit and function. That said, the parts are not as strong as injection molded and production-quality parts, and may not be suitable for the rigorous testing needed to ensure the intent of your part is not compromised. Functional prototypes for testing typically come with the disadvantage of adding time and cost for post-processing steps – defeating the major advantage of 3-D printers, which is speed.  

Or Simply A Fad? 

The future of 3D printing and its relevance in rapid prototyping depends on a number of factors – including the ability to produce complex parts rather than dummy parts that are rarely equipped for practical use.  3-D printers are currently challenged with having the ability to utilize different materials from the same printer head, ensuring that a part is tailored to a designer’s desired end use. These material limitations oftentimes result in weak or brittle parts. Additionally, material shrink is an important factor that can be accounted for during the design process of an injection molded prototype, but is not information you will find in a 3-D printed part. In many scenarios, this important factor will present some challenges and re-working of design that may not necessarily be accounted for upfront (which may present costly tweaks and possible re-do’s when using 3-D printing).

Parts are typically created in hours and changes to the design and engineering of the part can be made in a CAD (computer-aided design) file after the part is analyzed. But in terms of a full-scope testing and the manufacturing process, 3D printing is not a realistic option.

Working with a plastic prototype design engineer who will guide you from conception, through to production will provide many benefits in the long-term. In some cases, this process may require a greater upfront commitment in regard to time and budget time, however; critical design compromises are avoided – allowing for quicker time to market.

In your opinion, is 3-D Printing the future of prototyping or a fad? Let us know in the comments!

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