The Economic Value of 3D Printing?

cheaperflightsOn a visit to the London Science Museum, my oldest grandson explained to me how 3D printing works.  I expressed doubt about its economic value, but he pointed out this sign.  “Aha,” I said, “here is a clear-cut case of a technological change that should reduce long-run average cost (by saving on materials).”

And despite the last sentence of the picture, this saving will eventually be passed onto consumers in the form of lower ticket prices, but probably not fully in the oligopolistic aircraft manufacturing industry.



Can anyone read that?


When you're done with plane parts, I have a 3D printed bridge you may want to take a look at...


The benefits really aren't due to cost of materials, but from being able to form shapes that are difficult or impossible to create with conventional machining.

Joe J

Yes and no. Some of it could be a structural question, I'm guessing. Where are the weak parts on a planes hull? Most likely they are at the joints where the various panels were joined and riveted together. These joints would be 2 or 3 times as thick as the rest of the pannel, adding weight and structural weaknesses and a touch of drag from it not being as smooth from having a joint and rivets.
I can also the advantage in 3-d for unique manufacturing.

Eric M. Jones

There is not now, nor with their ever be, a part that is cheaper to make by 3D printing as it is presently understood (with the exception of some trick parts that can only be done in 3D).

This new promotion of 3D printing is just a way to get more people, artists and engineers to buy a 3D printer. This is not bad in itself.

But the learning curve is very steep Bubala.


As an engineer who uses 3D printers regularly, my primary advantage is the ability to prototype parts quickly, as well as design parts as I intend them to be as opposed to machining piecemeal parts into a final intended design. Machining, the classical manufacturing process, won't go by the wayside due to material advantages. But 3D printers are catching up as I've made very durable parts. Machining can be more time consuming if tooling changes are required, as well possibly requiring assembly knowledge (welding, fastners, etc).
The learning curve also isn't as steep as one might think aside from the intimidation of using modeling software, which I imagine 3D companies are working on simplifying for the masses.


One way 3D printing will be very useful economically is for rarely needed parts. For cheap to produce but low turnover parts, currently the cost would be dominated by inventory and distribution costs. 3D printing such parts will be viable even if the manufacturing cost of the printed part is substantially greater than a factory-mass-produced part.

Think of that little plastic bit which, by being lost or broken, has made some tool or toy unusable, but no replacement part can be bought.

Eric R

Or in a case where a part cannot be easily manufactured in one piece due to the inner structure. If there was a part which had to be traditionally manufactured in six spearate pieces and then assembled and welded, if that part could be 3d printed there could be significant savings by getting rid of that assembly process.

El Conquistador

Am I the only one thinking the final solution for lost Tupperware lids?

Eric R

If you #D-print the right amount of food in the first place, then your don't need tupperware :)


Except that it would be impossible, in any technology short of magic, to 3D print actual food - that is, to take stable substances like C02, H2O, and a smidgen of nitrates & minerals, and create something with nutritional value from them. Of course you could do some sort of automated cooking, along the lines of a bread machine, but very little current food prep really fits into a printing model.


For a professor, Hamermesh sure doesn't do his research.

People are already using 3D printing to prototype new products cheaply.

Many products already contain 3D printed parts, suggesting there is already some economic advantage.

This is all before we get into 3D printing used in medicine (for example, people getting 3D printed bones implanted for reconstructive surgery) or nanotech (they've 3D printed a hard drive that is 20x denser, and many orders of magnitude smaller, than any other out there) or a host of other industries.

And then there's 4D printing--i.e. 3D printing something with kinetic energy built into it. For example, a device you can insert into an L-shaped pipe and, by bending the end you are holding, the other end bends to go around the L. Useful for everything from plumbing to surveillance, and much cheaper than a complex tool with many moving parts.

Not only that but 3D printing could be the solution to extraterrestrial colonization. Google the D-shaped Printer: it's a giant 3D printer that can build habitats out of existing material in the ground. It requires only a few lightweight trusses and the printer head. Much easier to launch that into space than conventional construction equipment.



A fool question:
Is anybody actually doing 3D dental pieces from software to implanting?
( Im thinking that perhaps somebody living far from an urban center,could take video of his mouth,and get at mail a fixture that he could insert with some glue)

Are 3D materials hard enough to replace ceramics,titanium,silver and gold for dental uses?


They already use them to replace facial bones, so the answer to your question is yes.


I think that this industry may be where the auto industry was before Henry Ford, or the computer industry as the PC was being introduced (my parents had bought an Apple II by then for my younger brothers to learn programming on). Right now, it often takes a lot of hacking to make it work, esp. with a new object, and that is just fine with garage tinkerers. Read about some guy making shotgun slugs a day or two ago this way. Mostly useless, since they were plastic and not metal, but the guy who made them and the guys who tested them had fun, though it took a lot of hacking and research to make the project a success.

Right now, I see three problems. First, it apparently often takes a lot of hacking to make things, esp. the first time. I think that will ultimately be overcome with the development of robust tools and libraries. Second, it takes too long to make a lot of things this way. But, that was where we were with autos before Ford figured out how to mass produce them economically. And, what you can make is so far limited by size, materials, speed, and cost. Even that though is changing - for example, with the manufacture of body parts using human cells.

Maybe I (and many others) have just read too much science fiction, where household replicators are shown as ubiquitous. Imagine how we might live, if we were even less tied to central civilization (though Amazon is doing a good job of that already), and could replicate almost any non-organic implement, tool, or gadget upon demand. And, even better if you could recycle the gadgets that you had previously manufactured. Instead of your kitchen and garage cabinets and drawers filling up with stuff that you use on rare occasion, you could generate the right tool upon demand, and then recycle it afterwards. And, this might even extend into clothing, allowing people to print low usage clothing upon whim.

One place that this technology seems to already be in some early use, at some level of abstraction, is in printing circuitry. One example is flexible circuitry (circuitry that is not attached rigidly to a rigid structure).

In the end, I suspect that we will look back in 20 years or so, and be surprised at where this technology has gone, and why anyone doubted its usefulness. Or, maybe it is just one of those cute technologies that doesn't live up to its expectations. I would bet on the former, but cannot discount the latter.