It’s not magic – it’s additive manufacturing! We try to debunk some of the most popular 3D printing misconceptions out there.
3D printing has been around since the 80’s but there’s still a lot of myths and popular misconceptions about this technology. This happens mainly because only a few years have passed since smaller, desktop machines became available and affordable to a wider audience. What began as a new type of rapid prototyping technique, now is often seen as a technological breakthrough that will allow all of us to manufacture our own cars, furniture, and guns.
Let’s put all the science fiction and exuberant imagination on a side for a while and do a quick fact check of what 3D printing really is and is not.
I can 3D print everything
Some 3D printing professionals tell this joke to their clients: I can 3D print everything you want. As long as it’s plastic. Not too detailed. And fits in my printer.
Big industrial machines offer a wide range of materials other than plastic, including resin and various metals but the production process is often long and very costly. At the same time, there are many new types of filaments for desktop 3D printers. They often have “wood”, “rubber” or “copper” in their names and are very close in properties to the real materials. But the truth is, that all 3D printing filaments are plastic-based with other materials being just an addition that slightly changes the properties of printed objects.
Other obvious constraints are the level of details and the working space. These depend on the size and model of a 3D printer that you’re using. Industrial 3D printers could print an entire chair, some even print prototypes of car parts. These machines can also achieve a greater level of detail with desktop 3D printers depending on the diameter of their printing nozzles. Smaller machines like ZMorph or Ultimaker won’t print large objects because of their limited working space. Many advanced users, however, design parts for bigger objects, manufacture them and then assemble, for example, a working mechanical clock.
Every printer prints the same
Probably the biggest of all 3D printing misconceptions is that once you have a 3D model on your computer, then every 3D printer will manufacture it the same way. Sadly, this is not true.
Smallest 3D printers bought for 300$ along with your groceries will never achieve the quality of top desktop devices. On the other hand, the latter will always stay behind millions of dollars worth industrial 3D printers. Among some of the most important factors affecting the quality of the 3D prints are the extruders (diameter of their nozzles, max temperature, speed, etc.), build platforms (heated ones are always better) and casing of the machine. The closed casing provides better, more stable printing environment. Stable temperature means fewer deformations of prints and fewer breaks in their structure. It works the other way too as a closed printer is quieter.
The quality of the 3D prints can be affected by other things too. ABS, PLA, HIPS, Flex and other filaments will act differently depending on their thickness (1.75 or 3.00 mm) and the temperature set in the extruder and on the heating bed. PLA filaments are recommended for machines without heated platforms, mostly because ABS and other materials won’t stick to the table.
The matters look differently with big industrial 3D printers. Many people imagine a nozzle adding layer after layer in order to build an object, but most of these machines are based on different technologies, like the binding of granular materials, melting metal wires with laser or light-based DLP and stereolithography.
The last two technologies were successfully implemented into resin-based desktop machines but they require a very advanced knowledge to operate. Which brings us to another huge misconception about 3D printing…
Everyone should have a 3D printer
Sure, everybody can buy a 3D printer nowadays but not everyone should. Mostly because not everyone would make use of it. Just like only a small percentage of people buys a regular printer to print books instead of buying or renting them.
It’s important to remember, that just like any other manufacturing tools, 3D printers are used mostly in product development and production instead of being consumer-friendly products like smartphones or a fridge. Operating a 3D printer requires a certain professional knowledge and object manufactured this way most of the time aren’t considered as end products.
The most common use of 3D printers is for rapid prototyping. They’re being useful for manufacturing working prototypes of mechanical devices and improving them further. It’s also a great tool for architects and designers to showcase their ideas before going into mass production.
Many companies try to use 3D printing to manufacture finished products like car parts. There are also examples of very successful applications of 3D printing in fashion, footwear design, and jewelry but these are mostly very specific designer products manufactured in low volumes (also because they require additional post-processing like grinding and painting) or one of many production methods used during the development of more complex products.
Bonus: It’s like Star Trek!
Many people imagine replicators from Star Trek when hearing about 3D printing. This bold vision of the future drives a lot of 3D printing professionals and enthusiasts but still remains among popular 3D printing misconceptions.
Some 3D printers can print with thick pastes, chocolate, and dough but they’re still far from actually printing a fully eatable three-course dinner or even a cup of tea, earl gray, hot. We also won’t 3D print a working phone, laser pistol or TV remote, because printers can’t (at least yet) use conductive materials to manufacture cables and electronics.
Another problem is that in Star Trek “replicating” is fueled by pure energy and creates objects out of thin air. All types of 3D printers require large supplies of manufacturing materials. Creating every home appliance, piece of furniture and clothes in a 3D printer is a tempting vision but one would have to buy tons of raw materials and spend weeks on printing objects (things don’t appear instantaneously!), that would ultimately have a much lower quality than objects manufactured in more traditional ways and available in stores.
Any other 3D printing misconceptions?
There are still many 3D printing misconceptions floating around the web and media. Mostly they come from wishful thinking as the idea itself became very popular in the mainstream media where it’s often compared to the bold visions from science fiction novels and movies. For industry professionals, this is a welcomed sign of public interest and acknowledgment but also a call to action to push the boundaries of the technology even further.
Let us know in the comments below what other 3D printing misconceptions you heard about. Which of them should be debunked in public?