Although most of us have probably heard of 3D printing, actually understanding the process can be interpreted in different ways. Essentially, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. While there are several different technologies available, they are all based on the same principle of turning a digital model into a solid, 3D physical object by adding layers together.
Thinking of the original design file as a blueprint of an object is a good starting point that can help you visualize the process. Without this file, the object cannot be broken down into thin layers and sent to a 3D printer. Material (which can differ from plastic to rubber to sandstone and metal) is melted or shaped to create the layers that will form the printed objects.
Interestingly, until 2009, 3D printing was mostly limited to industrial purposes. However, the patent for fused deposition modeling (FDM) -- the most common 3D printing technology -- expired. This brought about the RepRap project, who had the mission to build a self-replicating machine. As a consequence, the world’s first desktop 3D printer for consumers was born. What once cost $200,000 suddenly became available for less than $2,000 very quickly in 2009.
There are several ways in which 3D printing has had a profound impact on the design industry in the few years that it's been mainstream, but we rounded up what we believe to be the top three.
Simply put, the reduction of expensive tools and software to create objects or products through 3D printing means that it is now an extremely cost-effective method for designers and entrepreneurs to run product tests or prototype launches. Similarly, it is also much easier to carry out adjustments or refinements to design without compromising any manufacturing orders in place.
3D printing offers a less risky path (both operationally and financially) for those who are looking to manufacture a product idea -- something that previously wasn’t really an option.
You might be aware that most conventional manufacturing process is "subtractive," meaning you start with a block of raw material and shape it until you reach your intended design. This, of course, results in waste material, which is not only expensive but an environmentally damaging waste of resources. For example, during the creation of commercial airplanes, it’s not unusual for up to 90 percent of the raw material to be lost during the process.
However, with the introduction of 3D printing comes an additive process, where you’re able to create an object from the raw material layer by layer. The benefit is that an object manufactured in this way will only use as much material as is needed to create that particular object. Additionally, the bulk of these materials can be recycled and repurposed into more 3D printed objects, minimizing the waste even further!
One of the biggest ways that 3D printing has actually impacted the design industry could actually be considered a negative. Companies are now able to design their own products based on what a client specifically requests -- plus, they can do it faster than ever. What’s more, brands can use 3D printing to create prototypes, samples and more.
The obvious consequence is that larger companies will require less direct help from external designers or contractors, as their internal design turnaround times will be slashed thanks to the capabilities of the 3D printer.
While the last point might have painted a rather gloomy picture for designers, it’s not all bad when it comes to the ways in which 3D printing has impacted the industry. There are also several ways in which designers can use the booming technology to their advantage.
One of the main benefits of 3D printing is that it enables designers to create and adjust complex shapes and objects, which they previously couldn’t have done using conventional methods. As mentioned, manufacturing through additive methods means that complexity doesn’t have an inflated price. Sophisticated designs with detailed features now cost the same amount as simple designs with traditional layouts.
Creating designs as a product entrepreneur can be A. risky, and B. expensive. However, thanks to 3D printing, both of these are now almost entirely removed. The use of 3D printing has helped entrepreneurs create product designs at a low cost for initial sample and prototype launch purposes. Then, when they’ve received feedback, 3D printing also ensures they can quickly turnaround changes and design tweaks without sacrificing any business opportunities that exist in the near future.
Historically, one of the most laborious and time-consuming processes for an architect is the scaling of design models. It can stall projects, take hours of detailed, mind-numbing work, and can still ultimately be rejected in the end. However, 3D printing now means that architects can scale design models quickly and accurately, which is a vital component when attempting to communicate design intent.
Regardless of an architectural company's size, they’re now able to create 3D printed scale models directly from their existing CAD data that is used for developing blueprints. What’s better? Depending on additional requirements, the models can include various materials, colors and textures -- all of which make for a compelling model.
All in all, 3D printing's influence in the design industry is clear. While its increase in productivity could mean a slightly diminished need for designers, we believe that its accuracy and cost-effective nature will ultimately benefit creation everywhere.