Chances are, you may have heard about the growing trend of 3D printing amongst professionals and hobbyists. While the technology is a novel invention, it’s important to note that 3D printing is not the answer to our manufacturing skills gap that some may hope it is. Let’s take a deeper look behind this manufacturing method and see how it stacks up against more conventional approaches.

3D Printing Isn’t as Widespread as You May Think

Across the country, there are more than 250,000 manufacturing companies. Less than 40 of them are comprised entirely of 3D printing, and other companies which feature the technology use it far less than traditional manufacturing techniques. These days, a career for someone who did 3D printing in school just isn’t viable, and may not be any time in the near future. Furthermore, 3D printer sales have declined over 30% each year over the last 3 years, both in the commercial and consumer sectors.

It’s Outperformed by Traditional Processes

While some may be tempted to say that 3D printers are more cost-friendly, that’s not necessarily the case. Taking into account time, material, and overall operating costs, the true cost per part looks a lot closer to what you could expect from a traditionally machined part. The biggest drawback in 3D printing is the amount of operating time you need to invest in a part. When comparing the amount of time needed to transform 1 cubic inch of material, there is no contest; traditional subtractive manufacturing outperforms 3D printing time and time again, even if you factor in setup time.

The same goes for the amount of time needed to design a part. CNC machining, injection molding, vacuum forming, and other traditional processes are all equipped to manufacture the same parts as 3D printing while saving time. Additionally, parts are more realistic, better looking, and more durable, with tighter tolerances and little to no finish work on the final product.

The System is Counter-Productive to Learning Skills

An aspect of 3D printing that’s lauded is its convenience. Like with a standard printer, owners can just seek out the part they need online, download the file, and run it off their machine without having to spend time designing or modeling it. While that may be true, it’s completely counter-productive to reducing the skills gap. That process of manufacturing completely bypasses the opportunity for students to learn design techniques and skills; as a CTE instructor once put it, “It’s a Tinker Toy education.” It’s hard to argue that.

As you can see, 3D printing may be an interesting direction for manufacturing to take, but right now it’s just not equipped to help students gain skills or sustain a career. More traditional methods of manufacturing are established in our economy and reward those who study them with a solid knowledge base and worthwhile design skills. Here at Leading Edge Industrial, we look forward to helping you take those steps and empower yourself in the field of manufacturing.