How 3D Printers are Changing Factories

Factories transformed manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution, allowing mass production and the ability for cheap products to reach many more people than before. Specialized machines built the same products over and over, perfectly consistent and identical.

In the modern manufacturing age, however, 3D printers are changing the way factories operate. Modern factories are much more flexible and have more capabilities than they did when they first became common.

The precursor to 3D printing was factory automation, which has been possible for more than half of a century. Automation is still common today, and many of its effects on the manufacturing industry are very similar to those of 3D printers. With processes and manufacturing done by machines, factories don’t need to hire as many workers,

which can keep costs down but will ultimately result in fewer jobs. With fewer workers, dangerous accidents are less frequent, but machine maintenance might be expensive because there are more machines. Historically, companies balancing these concerns opted for automation, which has led to fewer domestic manufacturing jobs but much easier access to products.

A 3D printer is an automated machine that can build anything given to it, given a program template and the proper materials. This is similar to traditional factories, in the sense that a 3D printer is constructed to make the same thing over and over again.

A 3D printer, though, is not constrained to make only one type of object. Without changing the parts of, or material for, the machine, a 3D printer can quickly change the object it makes, simply by inputing new instructions. This makes a factory which contains a 3D printer much more flexible than one that does not.

Although it is probable that 3D printing might replace simple automation inside many factories in the coming years, where they are seen first may depend heavily on what is being manufactured. 3D printers can handle a variety of raw materials, from food to plastics.

Whether a factory replaces its current machines and staff will depend on if a 3D printer is available that it can use. 3D printers are meant to be generic in terms of what they can make, but they must be built to accommodate their materials. A 3D printer that produces food would require different materials in different shapes than one that only handles molten plastic.

There are factories right now that are completely automated, and these might offer a glimpse into what a factory of 3D printers might look like. These factories require minimal human oversight to run, but they have the same considerations of repair and maintenance as any traditional factory.

There are some businesses and products where it’s not feasible to automate or 3D print, so it should be some time before a majority of factories have 3D printers in them. With technological advances, they should become more common. Since many 3D printed templates are available free of charge or copyright, the main thing stopping companies from making the switch is that they’ve always done it the old way.

3D printers are already making a major impact on manufacturing, but there is a lot more the technology can do. Technology hasn’t fully caught up with demand, and 3D printers don’t exist yet for a lot of specialized tasks. The first patents in 3D printing were filed in the late 1980s, so the idea has been around for quite some time.

3D printing seems like a new idea because 3D printers are becoming available for leisure, and some simple ones are available quite cheaply. They have been used in manufacturing for decades now, and once technology determines how to solve pressing questions concerning materials, such as printing metal, there should be a boom in their proliferation throughout the industry.

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Laney Portelance
Page Long is the Marketing Operations Director at PDF Electric & Supply, which is based out of Cary, NC. PDF Electric & Supply is an automation supplier specializing in Legacy GE PLCs.

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