Limitations of 3D printing

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March 24, 2014


By Robert McCutcheon, Partner, US Industrial Products Sector Leader

The revolutionizing effects of 3D printing may seem undeniable, but 3DP is still an evolving technology, currently hampered in its growth by issues of cost, speed, feedstock materials, and intellectual property protection.

While costs have come down for both printers and the raw materials used to make objects, printers at the lower-end of the market, geared toward the home user, don’t produce high-quality goods and can only use a few “inks.” It’s hard to see how the laser sintering process used in the printing of metals can be made safe for home use. And, while there are tutorials on the Internet on how to use CAD software to print an object, it is not such a simple deal to manipulate the files. Once affordable scanners hit the marketplace, allowing printing from a photo, it will help to expand printer usage. But it’s likely to be a very long time before printing useful objects in the home becomes commonplace.

Large industrial printers have their own constraints. They are not cost-effective except for small-scale uses. They are too slow to be used in mass production. The range of available printing materials is limited, and multi-material machines can only print copies of the same item. Printed objects are also limited by printer size, with larger objects needing larger printers.

One looming problem with 3DP is how to protect designs and materials. Perhaps, as in today’s music business, people will pay a one-time fee for a design download. Or a designer could supply basic models for free, but charge for customization. But the technology itself makes it easier to deconstruct and reproduce products, which makes it harder to control usage.

And then there are the liability issues. Who is liable if a printed product is faulty or harmful? It’s hard to say which party in the supply chain would be held responsible.

The issues of regulation and litigation could slow down the pace of innovation, but it won’t stop it. The genie is out of the box. A digital technology such as 3DP allows for worldwide collaboration on solving problems and improving the technology. Early this year, we saw the launch of the first color multi-materials printer. And scientists are now working on “4D” applications that will allow printers to print objects larger than themselves through ingenious methods incorporating materials with the capability to shape themselves and even adjust to changing conditions.

Along with these technological gains, we could see better and cheaper printers soon. With the expiration of existing patents this year, I expect more players will come into the market. It looks like a good time to take a hard look at what the technology can do for you – or against you – so you can prepare for what’s on the horizon.

What do you think will be the impact of 3DP on our future? How long will it take to affect your industry? How can companies protect their IP?

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