When the Ford Motor Company debuted their version of the assembly line, it became the prototype for the majority of all assembly lines. Built on the premise of reverse disassembly, inspired by slaughterhouses, manufacturing has never been the same since.
Now that manufacturing has come to its saturation point, it has found a way out of factory floors and into home basements. The game changer comes in the form the 3D printer, and if visionaries are right, these mini versions of machining equipment are the future of production. After all, as long as there is a blueprint available to upload, these things can make anything.
3D printers deserve merit. For individuals who need a constant maker of prototypes, investing in a second 3D printer would be a wise buy. Furthermore, these machines will not back down on intricate designs. It may take longer to make, but it will get there. To replace traditional manufacturing, though, 3D printing has very long way to go.
EPM is an example of a manufacturer that 3D printing aims to replace. To say that a mere 3D printer can replace a CNC machine or even function just as well, however, is preposterous. More than that, the materials a 3D printer can use is not an asset. It would be fine on a prototype, though not all, but it would be close to useless for industrial purposes.
What the Numbers Say
The growing sales of 3D printers are a cause for celebration—at least for manufacturers of 3D printers, that is. Delve a little bit into the statistics and it will show everyone what 3D printers are primarily for: making prototypes. Also worth noting is that it serves a much smaller niche than reports indicate.
In a Wall Street Journal blog entry from five and a half years ago, the global revenue from 3D printing was at US$2.2 billion. It has undoubtedly grown over the past three years, but it is so far behind traditional manufacturing that it will take a quantum leap in technology if it really wants to catch up and make a difference.
The biggest condemnation, however, came from the manufacturers of 3D printers themselves. In the same WSJ article, Stratasys executive David Reis admitted that it cannot replace established machining processes and equipment.
It may be best to put 3D printers where they belong: in prototype rooms and hobby shops. It is good for the casual parts enthusiasts, but it cannot be the standard-bearer for manufacturing.