Why 3D Printing is a Powerful Competitor to Conventional Mass Production


Most people historically associate 3D printing with prototypes or basic designs, which began in 1984 when Charles Hull invented stereolithography, allowing designers to created 3D models using digital data. Though the basics of using digital data to create a tangible object have remained the same, 3D printing has evolved to an effective manufacturing solution, offering diverse, innovative products with can be produced locally with less overall waste. As 3D printing has developed over the past 35 years, its advantages over traditional manufacturing are becoming clear.


Range of products

As manufacturers’ knowledge, skillsets, and technology, improve, they can use 3D printing to make a much wider range of products than previously possible. These products range from parts for planes and cars to biodegradable coffee cups, dresses, and even marathon-winning trainers. It can help manufacturers make complex parts that cannot be easily created through traditional processes, firmly positioning it as a powerful competitor to conventional mass production.


Aviation is a great example of an industry that is embracing 3D printing into its production. Boeing now has more than 20,000 non-metallic 3D-printed parts in its planes and the company believes it could save more than £2 million on the construction of each plane by adopting 3D printing into its production process. It also helps manufacturers produce planes faster and in a way that minimizes the planes’ emissions.


Another innovative example comes from Crème, based in New York, which 3D prints molds to create biodegradable, customizable coffee mugs, so it’s not only businesses that benefit from 3D printing but consumers too. Footwear giants such as Nike and Adidas have also begun to see the benefit of 3D printing. Adidas has designed a trainer with a 3D printed midsole, aptly named the ‘Futurecraft’ trainer.


Speed of production

By implementing 3D printing into mass production processes, companies can also benefit from reduced production time between prototyping and manufacturing. This means products can fail faster without a huge cost burden, and manufacturers, in turn, can tweak and refine the design and 3D print new prototypes, rather than manufacturing masses of unusable products.


This helps businesses break the ‘Bullwhip Effect’; a phenomenon in which manufacturers build a vast inventory of products based on their forecast of customer demand. The issue with this is, from a high position on the supply chain, a manufacturer can misjudge consumer purchasing behavior at a lower retail level, resulting in masses of unsaleable stock. By using mass customization and making products to exact specifications through 3D printing, as and when consumers want them, manufacturers decrease the labor demand and break free of this Bullwhip Effect. This speed of production helps businesses run faster, cheaper, and with greater efficiency overall.


Environmental impact

As consumer consciousness surrounding the environment and living sustainably rises, it is important for manufacturers that the technology they use reflects this societal shift. Overall, additive manufacturing is far more environmentally friendly than traditional manufacturing methods, which tend to use a lot of mineral resources and produce a lot of waste. Another problem with traditional processes is the excess material that is often produced, but this problem is eliminated through additive manufacturing. 3D printing allows companies to use only the amount of material they need to produce a part, meaning manufacturers don’t need to cut away excess material as in traditional methods.


In the first instance, 3D printing does use more energy than conventional methods, but some argue that by eliminating excess material, 3D printing actually uses a comparable amount of, or less energy, than other conventional methods. The reason for this is that you don’t need to use energy to produce the extra material and also remove it when subtractive processes take place.


Lower distribution emissions are another great benefit for businesses when producing their products through additive manufacturing. This has benefitted the aviation industry as the 3D printed parts they use tend to be lighter in weight which in turn helps to reduce the number of fuel planes have to use, making them both cheaper and more environmentally friendly to run. Businesses also gain the capability to print items from anywhere, even in a store or a customer’s own home, reducing the need and cost of transporting items.


Previously, 3D printing was confined to PLA plastics, but as technology has evolved there is now a range of materials including carbon fiber, metal, anti-bacterial plastic and thermoplastics which can be used in the process. Some of these materials are recyclable too, such as those made of thermoplastic.


Using biodegradable and renewable plant-based sources as opposed to more traditional petrol-based materials will help 3D printing continue to grow in popularity for manufacturing. One of the two main plastics used in 3D printing is actually produced from corn. Polylactic acid is not only biodegradable, but it is also renewable, non-toxic and creates little waste, making it an extremely popular choice within the manufacturing industry. This popular plastic is important in highlighting 3D printing as a revolutionary, sustainable and cost-effective option for manufacturers when producing products on a large scale.


3D printing challenges traditional manufacturing every step of the way and as technologies advance it will fast become superior to traditional manufacturing methods. It provides many benefits for a business right from the design stages to the sale of products, benefitting not only the consumer but also the business and the environment.

Authored by: Cin-Yee Ho, Director of Sales - XYZprinting, Inc.

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