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What Is 3D Printing?

Before manufacturers can think about integrating 3D printing into their business, it is worthwhile to first gain an understanding of the basics behind this technology. 3D printing is the process of creating three-dimensional physical objects from three-dimensional digital models using a 3D printer. 

The printing process involves specialized software to read a digital STS file on a computer before transmittingthe information to the printing apparatus. The printer then uses a filament or resin to render (or print) the digital illustration layer by layer using tangible material. 

3D printers can create complex objects from a variety of materials, including plastics, ceramics, titanium, steel, and gold. The versatility of this process has seen it used in numerous industries to print objects ranging from jewelry to intricate machine parts. Some of the more advanced uses of 3D technologies involve the creation of proteins, foods, and even human organs

How Is 3D Printing Used in Manufacturing?

The advent of 3D printing has opened up a wide range of possibilities for production, factory maintenance, and research and development (R&D). While this technology was first met with skepticism, many manufacturers have since adopted 3D printing into their operations.

Outlined below are some of the most common uses of 3D printing in the manufacturing industry. 


Conventional methods of prototyping involve the use of specialized molds and tooling, which can be time-consuming and expensive. When they were first introduced in the early 1980s, companies were quick to realize that 3D printing technology could create fully functional, workable models to test their end product. 

According to a study conducted by Sculpteo, titled “The State of 3D Printing,” approximately 55% of 3D printing was used for prototyping in 2018. 

Bridge Manufacturing 

Bridge manufacturing involves using rapid prototyping or additive fabrication techniques to produce low to medium quantities of working products before finalized tooling is available to create them in bulk. Using 3D printing as an interim manufacturing method, companies bring designs to the market faster and quickly modify components to meet consumer demands. Bridge manufacturing can also be used to make product upgrades without changing the tooling for each modification.


In some applications, conventional CNC machining and tooling have been replaced with 3D printers for full-scale designs. Additionally, 3D printing has also made it possible to manufacture complex parts and components previously considered to be unachievable through traditional machining techniques. 

This has created a number of opportunities in the design phase in the manufacturing process, leading to more innovative and efficient parts and components. Designers, engineers, and manufacturers must, however, keep in mind the limitations of the 3D printing process. 

Should You Integrate 3D Printing Into Your Manufacturing Process?

The decision to adopt any new manufacturing technique is usually predicated on cost.

In 2014, the Volkswagen Autoeuropa factory in Portugal integrated 3D printing into their operations to produce custom tools and jigs for use in their assembly line. By 2016, the company announced annual savings of $160,000 at just one plant as a result of the change. Volkswagen anticipates that continued use of 3D printing can yield cost savings of up to $250,000 each year. 

While Volkswagen found a way to integrate 3D printing into their daily operations effectively, the cost of this technology compared to conventional manufacturing depends on several factors. Typically, as in the case with Volkswagen, it is far more efficient and economical to produce jigs, tools, and fixtures using 3D printers. 

However, for the mass production of similar, non-customizable products, conventional molds and tooling may be more appropriate. Traditional manufacturing techniques usually have larger upfront expenses for the procurement and production of molds, tooling, fixtures, etc. However, once these expenses have been incurred, the unit costs and lead times of conventional manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, can be significantly less than 3D printing. 

LEGO bricks, for example, are manufactured from ABS plastic using injection molding. The company reports that it produces almost 19 billion LEGO bricks per year, which translates to 2.16 million units per hour, and 36,000 units every minute. This production rate far exceeds the capabilities of even the most advanced 3D printers currently available.  

Better for short runs

While 3D printing is not feasible for companies that need to manufacture products at extremely high volumes (like LEGO), this technology can provide substantial benefits to companies with relatively smaller production rates.  

Some applications of low-volume production include:

  • Production of in-house tools and equipment: Jigs, framework, and fixtures are just some of the items that can be economically manufactured using 3D printers.
  • Test market production: A limited number of products can be produced cost-effectively for testing features, functionality, or performance. 
  • On-demand or customized products: When units are rarely needed, they can be stored electronically rather than in physical storage rooms, thus reducing or eliminating inventory costs.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures: Limited units can also be produced as proofs-of-concept for investors or crowdfunding. 

What to Consider Before Buying a 3D Printer for Your Industrial Business 

Once you decide to move forward incorporating a 3D printer into your manufacturing operation, the next critical factor to consider is the type of printer that best suits your needs. While there are several types of 3D printers available, fused-deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) printers are the most common. 

During FDM printing, a stand of material is melted and deposited in layers to create a physical 3D model of the digital image. The plastic filament is fed through a heated extruder and the molten plastic is placed precisely via the print head.

FDM printers achieve a lower resolution compared to other 3D printers; as such, this technique is ideal when the precision of the finished surface isn’t critical. FDM can also produce rapid prototypes at relatively low costs. The cost of an FDM printer can range between $150 and $6,000.

SLA printers, on the other hand, work by exposing a reservoir filled with a photosensitive liquid polymer (or resin) to a UV-laser beam. The laser focuses on different areas, hardening the polymer to create the desired shape. 

SLA printing creates objects with higher resolution (smoother surfaces) than FDM printers. Therefore, they are better suited for applications where precision and tolerance are crucial. The objects created by SLA printing, however, possess inferior strength to those produced by FDM methods. Additionally, SLA printers are more expensive than their FDM counterparts, ranging between $250 and $10,000. 

Another factor to consider when purchasing a 3D printer is the supplier. There are three main sources to choose from: Amazon, international online stores, and other established online outlets. During the procurement process, be sure to assess: 

  • The reputation of the supplier
  • The prices between competing outlets
  • Return policies
  • The range of printer selection

The future of 3D printing seems promising for the manufacturing industry, as evidenced by increasing market share and the adoption of 3D printing units in various sectors. Manufacturers, however, should consider factors such as production volumes, manufacturing costs, and equipment costs before integrating this technology into their operations. 

Image Credit: Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock

Reprinted From: Thomas Insights

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