3D printing is becoming quite popular in the media these days. The idea that you can “print” something out of raw materials seems like something out of a science fiction movie, yet people are really doing it with this amazing technology. But what does it mean for the state of manufacturing? As I research about 3D printers I’m reminded of the changes in manufacturing that came about with the advent of CNC, or Computer Numerical Control. CNC changed manufacturing forever, making more complex parts a lot easier to create.
3D printing is somewhat of a natural progression from CNC turning and milling. In CNC, you’re starting with a rod of material and using tools on the X and Y axis, along with a moving Z axis to cut away the material until you have your desired shape. With 3D printing, you’re using the same X, Y and Z axes, but you’re putting down the material instead of taking it away, cutting the cost of tooling and fixturing.
But what will 3D printing do for CNC? I think it will improve it. There are already plenty of combination CNC machines and 3D printers, and since CNC shops are already used to CAD systems, I see the CNC shops that are heavy in prototyping adopting 3D printing and outfitting their shops with 3D printers.
3D printing is still in its infancy. Those who can remember back to the early 80′s, when CNC was just coming about might see some similarities between the two. 3D printing definitely has the same potential that CNC had back then.
When it comes to mass production, CNC is still the most cost effective and the fastest. Of course that could change because, as we know, anything is possible.