The question if 3D printing will replace mass production in the future appears quite often and you can find supporters of both options. From my perspective – the owner and CEO of the company with more than 15 years of experience in the field of rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing, I say yes, but only in certain areas. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that mass production will decrease. Producers, in response, to rapidly changing market expectations and the fact that in developed, rich countries consumers exchange everyday items for new ones more quickly – the volume of product series will be getting smaller in many areas, and mass production will cease to have such strong economic justification.
But for now that’s still only the trend. Today, 3D printing and mass production still work together, complementing and/or substituting under certain conditions – where one of them is more profitable than the other.
Rapid prototyping is just one of the fields where 3D printing excels over mass or multi-series production. The more so because the issue of additive technologies is really wide. We can get very cheap single elements with low-quality finishes (FDM print) as well as elements with exceptional surface quality (e.g. stereolithography, which is used by jewelry or dentistry), or elements with mechanical and chemical resistance of elements obtained by CNC machining – sintered technologies of polyamide (selective laser sintering, SLS) or metal (SLM) powders. But what is also important: parts made with ex. selective laser sintering technology give high surface quality, but also very wide possibilities of post-processing finished elements, if required by the project.
In the last two mentioned technologies, the unit cost and manufacturing time are higher than with the cheapest FDM technology, but these technologies are also incomparably more advanced. However, taking into account the fact that we are able to manufacture components for SLS and SLM machines for the quality and strength of those from CNC machining – it changes the perspective. In projects where the amount of needed elements closes in approx. 100 – 150, SLS technology has a definite time and cost advantage. First of all – starting production is much faster and much cheaper. But that is not all: also its modification is equally simple and non-invasive. In addition, at the same time, we are able to not only produce many elements – but the elements can be also same or even completely different, needed for other projects, orders, or devices.
Another significant aspect of using SLS 3D printing instead of conventional machining is material savings. In traditional/ conventional production methods, the amount of material waste is much larger – the production process is based on removing its excess. 3D printing works on the principle of overlapping successive layers (merging them in the process of solidification of materials or sintering of powders). In addition, SLS technology does not require the use of supports to build geometry. Selective Laser Sintering process uses as the support unsintered powder, located in the working chamber. After the process is completed, up to 70% of unused powder can be reused by sieving and mixing with new plastic powder.
Next aspect that distinguishes 3D printing technologies from those known as traditional is the obtainable complete freedom in the geometry of manufactured elements. This means that in Selective Laser Sintering technology we can not only produce elements not possible to obtain by traditional methods, but we also gets the ability to produce in one part elements, which were previously produced in several parts, then assembled into one. Here we are talking about all movable elements or hidden/ closed one in the another.
An argument often raised by engineers is the low strength of created by 3D printing technologies elements and the limited amount of available materials. Both of these arguments can be easily refuted today – parts and components manufactured in SLS and SLM technologies have up to 80% of the strength of injection molded parts or CNC machining, and theirs quality and strength 100% meet even stringent quality standards. Such unchecked theses build in the minds of some companies and engineers the false belief that 3D printing will fulfill its role only at the stage of prototyping. Changing this attitude will allow you to take full advantage of the great and wide potential of industrial additive manufacturing technologies, The more so that the implementation of an industrial quality 3D printer in the production plant is not only relatively inexpensive (compared to CNC machines or injection lines) but the operation of such devices is much simpler.