Posted December 6, 2010, 11:18 pm

Whizbang RP Printing.

Every time one of these articles pop up it make me frown and rub my hands on my face and then, slowly, sigh.

It’s probably just a case of “I kind of know a little bit about this area of information, and the article in question is aimed at a broader group that doesn’t necessarily know much about it, and I have some problems with the article, and it makes me frustrated”, but here are my feelings anyway.

Rapid prototyping is really, really awesome. I completely agree that the makers of the Glif wouldn’t have been able to do what did without it, and I agree that it’s an incredibly useful design tool.

But it grinds me so wrong when someone suggests that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in manufacturing thanks to the miracle of 3d printing. The 3d printer is not the printing press. 3d printing is not game changing production, though it does significantly change the way a product can be designed, prototyped, and the way in which a limited first flush can be made.

The strength of the 3d printing process is that you can produce workable models and prototypes on demand, with acceptable quality in fit and finish. There are also some really interesting possibilities for manufacturing complete assemblies with floating internal parts (that’s the real hotness).

The weakness of 3d printing is that each part takes an inordinate amount of time to make. If you’re planning on selling lots of your widget the most important factor is how quickly your process can pop out widgets, and the crawling pace of 3d printers makes them really uncompetitive. 

From what I’ve read, the makers of the Glif made 500 units by means of 3d printing, and as demand climbed past 5,000 units they switched to traditional injection molding. 

“The potential for this kind of production is enormous, though the real breakthrough will come when individual customisable components or pieces are the same cost to produce as mass runs.”

The only reason why mass production is so affordable is that you’re making the same thing over and over and over and over again. As soon as you start demanding one-offs all of that efficiency evaporates.

Yes, “3d printing and software means that anyone can be a designer”. No, it doesn’t mean anyone with a printer can keep up with a demand.

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