This piece was originally published in the March 2017 issue of electroindustry.
Alex Boesenberg, Manager, Government Relations, NEMA
While 3D printers for home use have been available for about five years, it is only recently that price and performance have come to a point that they can be called affordable. In January, I bought one.
Any hobbyist or DIYer is familiar with subtractive manufacturing. You start with a chunk of material and carve away everything that doesn’t look like the finished product. 3D printing is the opposite: it is additive manufacturing. A melted filament of material (usually some form of thermoplastic) is extruded by a microcomputer-controlled setup. Additive manufacturing uses just enough material to make the form in question, with very little wasted material.
One opportunity that is already playing out in small-scale manufacturing is the ability to create devices or toys in relatively small numbers. Many of the fittings and braces for my 3D printer are, in fact, printed themselves. I can even download part files from the printer manufacturer and reprint versions for things that have been improved since my printer was made.
What fascinates me about 3D printing at home is that it removes the historic requirement of having the backing and expertise necessary to develop, build, and operate injection molding equipment. There are a rapidly growing number of online forums where hobbyists make, share, improve, and re-share almost any item you can imagine. Celebrity gearhead Jay Leno added a 3D printer to his garage a few years ago to prototype and test the fit and function of modeled replacement parts for his one-of-a-kind antique vehicles before having the parts made from appropriate metals.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 3D printing is the relatively quick turnaround from rendering to tangible item. The ability to envision, design, and deliver complex objects at home is now at a scale that until recently was only possible in professional prototyping facilities.