3D printing: difficult democratisation

According to the experts, 3D printing would completely change the industrial sector and consequently prototyping. The press announced that this technology would develop rapidly in the industry and would be a must for individuals from 2015. This democratisation among the general public was supposed to revolutionise the industrial world.

Why has 3D printing not experienced the democratisation that was predicted? 

This method was supposed to be flexible and complete enough for everyone to use it. Indeed, 3D printing machines are present in design offices and factories. However, this is not the revolution that was announced, especially among individuals. Today, it is still absent from the majority of homes. What are the impacts on rapid prototyping?

Admittedly, this is a revolution to some extent. Firstly, 3D printing has democratised a certain kind of prototypes among manufacturers. Indeed, it generally allows the manufacturing of parts that are not very restrictive technically or visually. Secondly, it can replace powder sintering and stereolithography. These methods are gradually becoming obsolete. Finally, it allows the creation of shapes that cannot be machined by CNC. However, it has not replaced the traditional techniques of rapid prototyping, CNC machining and vacuum casting. What are the causes?

CNC machining and vacuum casting offer high performance compared to 3D printing

  • Price-quality ratio: 3D printing machines allow the creation of a small number of parts. Indeed, very few frequently used applications and standards in prototyping are achievable in 3D printing. Thus, the machines can be used at home or in business premises, but within certain limits. The price-quality ratio negatively impacts the feasibility of profitable prototyping at home or in offices.
  • Bulky equipment: the large size of professional machines strongly discourages their use in offices and at home.
  • Difficulty of use: operating the machines and software ideally requires studying for several weeks with technicians.
  • Manufacturing time: when quantities exceed 2 copies, the manufacturing time is generally longer than in the traditional rapid prototyping techniques, CNC machining and vacuum casting.
  • Parts obtained: the prototypes produced meet low functional and visual demands. 3D printing is not relevant for prototypes with stringent technical constraints.

Despite its advantages over stereolithography and powder sintering, 3D printing therefore has little relevance to the sector of rapid prototyping. Indeed, prototype designers generally use other technologies, notably to create complex parts. 3D printing does not allow the achievement of the same quality of parts as traditional prototyping techniques, thus slowing its democratisation. CNC machining and vacuum casting are much more advantageous. Therefore, 3D printing has only developed moderately among players with prototyping needs.

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