As with any emerging technology, 3D printing has disrupted the markets by transforming product development. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves joining materials together, layer after layer to make objects from a 3D digital model. It differs from subtractive manufacturing (traditional manufacturing) which comprises cutting away unwanted parts from large pieces of solid material.
The 3D printing process eliminates many steps used in traditional manufacturing and facilitates the manufacture of complex structural components. These features have led to significant success in the areas of rapid prototyping and tool development.
As a result, 3D printing technology has opened new possibilities for industries by enabling faster product design, customization, cost reduction, tangible product testing, and more. For instance, its advances are increasingly becoming relevant in medical and dental industries where customization is essential. We have looked at the advantages of 3D printing here.
However, 3D printing technology has a dark side and is not always the right choice for product development for your development project. 3D machines are still potentially hazardous and wasteful. Moreover, their economic, political, societal, and environmental impacts have not been extensively studied.
Here are ten things about the risks and potentially negative impacts of 3D printing technology.
1. High Energy Consumption
According to research by Loughborough University, 3D printers consume approximately 50 to 100 times more energy than injection molding, when melting plastic with heat or lasers. In 2009, studies at The Environmentally Benign Manufacturing, a research group dedicated to investigating the environmental impacts related to product manufacturing, showed that direct laser metal deposition uses 100 times as much electrical energy as traditional manufacturing. For mass production, 3D printers consume a lot of energy and are therefore better suited for small batch production runs.
2. 3D Printing Technology is Expensive
3D printing equipment and materials cost make the technology expensive. Industrial grade 3D printers are still expensive costing hundreds of thousands of dollar, which makes the initial expenses of using the technology very high. For a single machine, capital investment starts in the tens of thousands of dollars, and can increase to as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Also, the materials used in commercial grade 3D printers are costly compared to product materials used in traditional manufacturing.
3. Limited Materials
While 3D printing is a significant manufacturing breakthrough, materials that can be used are still limited, and some are still under development. For example, the 3D printing material of choice is plastic. Plastic is preferred as it can quickly and easily be deposited down in melted layers to form the final product. However, plastic may vary in strength capacity and may not be the best for some components. Some companies offer metal as a material, but final product parts are often not fully dense. Other specialized materials including glass and gold are being used but are yet to be commercialized.
4. 3D Printers Aren’t that User-friendly
Because of the excitement and potential around 3D printing technology, 3D printers have come across as easy to use and also sound more useful than they really are. The truth is 3D printers use high-voltage power supplies, specialized equipment, and parts which makes them difficult to use and manage. Some have low resolution and can’t even connect to Wi-Fi. Improvements have been made here and it’s getting easier to 3D print day by day.
5. Harmful Emissions
3D printers used in enclosed places such as homes can generate potentially toxic emissions and carcinogenic particles according to researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Their 2013 research study showed that 3D desktop computers could emit large numbers of ultrafine particles and some hazardous volatile organic compounds during printing. The printers emitted 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute using PLA filament, and the ABS emitted up to 200 billion particles per minute. Emitted radiations are similar to burning a cigarette, and may settle in the bloodstream or lungs posing health risks including cancer and other ailments.
6. Too Much Reliance on Plastic
Popular and cheap 3D printers use a plastic filament. Although using raw plastic reduces waste generation, the machines still leave unused or excess plastic in the print beds. PLA is biodegradable, but ABS filament is still the most commonly used type of plastic. The plastic byproduct ends up in landfills negatively affecting the environment. Furthermore, plastic limits the type of products that can be created from the material. Future 3D printers will need to use other materials such as metal (as some currently do) or carbon composites to become more useful to manufacturers and consumers alike.
7. 3D Printers are Slow
While 3D printers are limitless for mass customization, they are slow when it comes to manufacturing many objects. Depending on printer size and quality, it can take several hours to days to print. The more the work involved with product development, the slower the printers. Companies that receive orders to customize and make 3D prints using a variety of products can take up several weeks to print depending on the materials used.
8. Production of Dangerous Weaponry
With 3D printers, it is easy to create 3D knives, guns, explosives, and any other dangerous items. Criminals and terrorists can, therefore, make such weapons without being detected. Some criminal organizations have already used 3D printing technology to create card readers for bank machines. As time goes on, 3D technology will become more user-friendly and cost-effective, and it is possible that design and production of unlicensed weaponry will increase.
9. Copyright Infringements
Counterfeiting is one the most significant disadvantages of 3D printing. Anyone with a product blueprint can forge products very quickly. Patent violations will increasingly become more common, and identifying counterfeited items will become practically impossible. As 3D printing technology evolves, patents, and copyright holders will have a harder time protecting their rights and companies manufacturing unique products will be significantly affected.
10. Manufacturing Job Losses
3D printing technology can make product designs and prototypes in a matter of hours as it uses only one single step. It eliminates a lot of stages that are used in subtractive manufacturing. As a result it doesn’t require a lot of labor cost. As such, adopting 3D printing may decrease manufacturing jobs. For countries that rely on a large number of low skill jobs, the decline in manufacturing jobs could dramatically affect the economy. It’s likely that robotics will have a much larger impact here.
In a lot of industries, 3D printing provides countless benefits. However, it is not going to replace traditional manufacturing. It is still an emerging technology with some disadvantages that need to be considered when selecting a product development method. Manufacturers and product designers therefore need to see it as a process to complement traditional manufacturing. They can exploit its unique capabilities to improve product design and manufacture entirely new products that could not be otherwise produced.