3-D Metal Printing Could Save Consumers Time and Money

3-D metal printing can help save consumers’ time and money, by reducing production costs for industry. 3-D printing might eliminate shipping costs for items which can be printed at a lower cost and down-sizing physical inventory and overhead. 3-D metal printing could mitigate the business costs that are traditionally passed down to consumers. Additionally, the speed at which these items can be printed will save consumers time. For example, an auto repair shop could print a hard-to-find part themselves without waiting for it to ship from a distant warehouse.

Listed as one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) top ten breakthrough technologies for 2018, 3-D metal printing has the potential to change production and manufacturing now and in the future. Although 3-D printing has been a reality for decades,  cost and speed of the print job limited its applicability for any material other than basic plastic.  In its list, MIT commented that, “[3-D printing is] becoming cheap and easy enough to be a potentially practical way of manufacturing parts. If widely adopted, it could change the way we mass-produce many products.”

Besides saving consumers time and money by not having to wait for the delivery of hard-to-find parts (or needing to search for a used example of a part no longer in production), the printed metal objects could actually be more durable than their traditionally-made counter parts. According to MIT Technology Review:

“The technology can create lighter, stronger parts, and complex shapes that aren’t possible with conventional metal fabrication methods. It can also provide more precise control of the microstructure of metals. In 2017, researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced they had developed a 3-D-printing method for creating stainless-steel parts twice as strong as traditionally made ones.”

British technology news website The Register reported that, although the 3-D printing setup isn’t cheap, costing around $120,000 for some printers, 3-D metal printing is still competitive, especially in small-scale production and with possible large-scale applications in the future. This technology also has the ability to improve part production and product generation. By making use of commercially available powder forms, some of these printers are able to print products in a range of different metals, including steels, copper and titanium.

These metal printers employ a method similar to that of a regular printer. Instead of inkjets, the system uses a glue-like substance, called a binder, which is placed between layers of metal powder, and each new layer of powder adheres to the binding agent. Eventually, the form of the object begins to take shape. Once the object is formed, it is blown off and placed in a box to be heated until the binding agent is melted out of the form. At this point, the object being printed can also be infused with other metals to create an alloy.

By creating a stronger, more durable metal quickly and at a lower cost, 3-D metal printing has the potential to help consumers save time and money. Production costs could decrease and companies could save money on inventory storage and overhead. The ability to print the part or product needed in an efficient, cost effective way may eliminate the need to maintain expansive inventories. This will enable businesses to meet the demands of consumers while spending less on production, not having to ship metal or parts, and reducing overall inventory size. There may be questions of copyright or intellectual property, but it is not hard to imagine a system whereby printer operators buy a limited-use license good for printing only a certain number of a copyrighted or patented part or product.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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