8whatWell, to put it as simply as I can - it is a small evolutionary step from spraying toners on paper to putting down layers of something more substantial (for example using plastic resin) until the layers add up to an object.

The technology of “3D printing” actually isn’t something new in the manufacturing industry. It was invented in 1986 and remained relatively unknown to the general public until recently. A combination of U.S. government funding and commercial start-ups has created a new wave of unprecedented popularity around the idea of 3D printing since that time.

Benefits of 3D Printing:

  • More manufacturing options: 3D printing provides a wide variety of manufactured products, including customizable products and even down to an individual’s personal designs.
  • Rapid prototyping process: Products can now go from just a design to an actual prototype in a relatively shorter time span.
  • Manufacturing speed: Just like the previous advantage, the manufacturing speed for a large number of final products is equally fast.
  • Reduced costs: Even though the initial setup costs are higher, 3D printing has become cheaper than employing cheap labour in third world countries. It basically eliminates the cost incurred by shipping and from buffer inventories. As applications of the technology expand and prices drop, and there is an increasing potential of 3D printers existing in homes in the near future, the costs of customized products will be almost the same for mass production products.
  • Warehousing: With traditional manufacturing technologies, it is much faster and cheaper to manufacture additional products that you probably know that you will eventually need. However with 3D printing, only products that are sold need to be manufactured. Now warehousing for that excess inventory will be needed significantly less, which in turn means saving more money.
  • Medical: One of the innovative products that 3D printing may provide is the manufacturing of customizable human body parts or organs. These usages are still experimental, but the potential advantages are huge. Doctors will be able to quickly build and replace critical organs, such as the heart, lungs, or liver that will have almost no chance of donor rejection, since the organs will be built using the patients’ unique characters and DNA.

The negative impact of 3D printing:

  • Fewer manufacturing jobs: As with all new technologies, manufacturing jobs will decrease. This disadvantage can and will have a large impact to the economies of third world countries, especially China, that depend on a large number of low skill jobs.
  • Limited materials: With the current available technology, 3D printers can only manufacture products out of plastic, resin, certain metals, and ceramics. 3D printing of products in mixed materials and technology, such as circuit boards, are still pretty much under development.
  • Copyright issues: With 3D printing becoming more common, the printing of copyrighted products to create counterfeit items will become more common and nearly impossible to detect.
  • Dangerous items: 3D printers can create dangerous items, such as guns and knives, with very little or no oversight.
  • More useless stuff: One of the dangers of 3D printers is that they will be used to create more useless stuff that is bad for the environment and wallets. But there are new methods of automatically recycling objects made by 3D printers that hold promise of better recycling in the future.
  • Size: Currently, 3D printers are limited in what size of products they can create. But we might see large items, such as houses and building, being created using 3D printers in the near future.

Take a look at the video of 3D printing from the National Geographic Channel to see for yourself:

By Augustine Hong