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.



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  1. RGJ says:

    Can anyone read that?

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  2. dave says:

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

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  3. James says:

    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.

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    • Joe J says:

      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.

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    • Gary says:

      From what I’ve seen, 3D printing saves on material but takes longer to produce and object. Unless the latter can be sped up significantly, where are the efficiency savings?

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      • Oliver H says:

        A)There are plenty of manufacturing techniques that take considerable time
        B)If your production setup requires tooling changes, these can also reduce the overall speed of production. With 3D printing, you simply change the pattern data, the machine is still the same.
        C)As the little sign points out, with 3D printing, you only produce precisely what you need, i.e. no stenciled-out parts that leave substantial amounts of waste that has to be recycled to be useful for anything.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • DKY says:

      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.

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  5. MW says:

    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.

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    • Eric R says:

      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.

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  6. El Conquistador says:

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

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    • Eric R says:

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

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      • James says:

        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.

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      • NZ says:


        They can already 3D print living tissue, used in grafts. It would not be hard to extrude from this to print, say, a steak.

        The way they do it is by basically bypassing the problem you mentioned. Rather than start with stable chemicals, they start with cells suspended in a goo and treat that as ink. I’m not a scientist and there’s probably more to it than that (something to make the cells interact with one another maybe?) but they lay this goo out in the desired pattern and it forms tissue.

        All 3D printing requires (as opposed to stereolithography, laser sintering, and other forms of additive manufacturing) is that the raw material be able to be squeezed through a nozzle.

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      • James says:

        I suppose this depends on your definition of the term ‘3D printing’. If all it takes is being squeezed through a nozzle, then every cake decorator or good pastry chef has been doing it all along. Not to mention various commercial foods, as for instance shredded wheat. And of course there’s sausage…

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      • Michael says:


        You are quite correct, in as much as anyone with a pen can carry out 2d printing.

        3d printing of food in this manner is already a thing.

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      • James says:

        I think I see where the confusion lies. Your idea of 3D printing of food is not CREATING food, it’s taking some existing food material and arranging it in patterns – which IMHO is kinda pointless unless it somehow winds up either tastier or more nutritious.

        It’s similar to the idea of 3D printing living tissue. That isn’t what’s being done (AFAIK, anyway). Either a substrate is printed, on which the cells can grow, or existing cells are arranged in patterns. But the cells themselves are not being created.

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  7. NZ says:

    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.

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  8. carlosmx37 says:

    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?

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