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College 101: Who Uses 3-D Printing?

I love technology, and I’m often a big early adopter. However, sometimes, the technology people create just seems silly to me. I’m thinking in particular of 3-D printing--it’s kind of useless, right? I see tech-loving people on websites like Reddit posting cool stuff they printed with 3-D printers, but it’s never very functional stuff, and 3-D printers are so expensive. I feel like I’m missing something! Why are 3-D printers even a thing? Who would buy one? Am I getting old and becoming a grumpy technology-hater?

No, you’re not a luddite just because you don’t own a 3-D printer! In fact, very few consumers do. The people you see posting images of cool things they’ve printed on 3-D printers may be among the small number of folks who own 3-D printers in their home, but it’s also possible that they’re having fun wasting a little time at work. See, the answer to one of your questions--”who would buy a 3-D printer?”--is simple. While individuals don’t often buy 3-D printers, companies buy them all of the time. They do so because 3-D printers are very far from useless to experts in certain industries.

A 3-D printer, as you may already know, can create a 3-D object fast. Layer by layer, 3-D printers combine polymers to create an object from thin air. If you’re not familiar with the technology, imagine a 3-D printer creating a loaf of bread. The printer first dispenses a thin layer--one “slice,” you might say--and then builds on it, layer after layer, slice after slice, until the full loaf of bread has been created. It’s a fast process, compared to older ways of creating 3-D objects.

Creating 3-D objects is something that workers must do a great deal in certain industries. Take manufacturing, for instance. Manufacturers don’t often use their 3-D printers to make a few million of something. That wouldn’t be efficient. However, before manufacturers set up their factories to make a few million of something, they must ensure that that something is the right something. They want to make prototypes, checking and rechecking the shape and size of the object. A 3-D printer (or an offsite 3d printing service) makes it easy to do that. Experts can edit and revise designs, and then re-print prototypes. Then, when they’re satisfied, they use different tools materials to mass-produce the chosen design.

Manufacturers aren’t the only ones who need to prototype things. The aerospace industry, for instance, relies on prototyping. They must test for everything, from safety to aerodynamics. The ability to churn out prototypes is huge for them, and they use a lot of 3-D printers because of it.

The automotive industry also uses a great deal of prototyping and 3-D printing. Like their buddies in the aerospace and manufacturing industries, automotive pros must know how their designs will work with other parts, safety issues, aerodynamics, and more. Small scale models of cars, full-sized models of small parts, and more is all part of 3-D printing.

Does this mean that 3-D printing will forever belong just to these industries? Of course not. Other industries use 3-D printing to great effect, too, and there are a small number of individuals who enjoy having 3-D printers in their home. The future may see an increase in consumer applications for 3-D printers. You may someday have the ability to replace broken parts in things you own by printing them on your personal 3-D printer. Perhaps you’ll one day find yourself replacing a lost board game piece with a 3-D printer, or even buying tools and toys online and printing them in the comfort of your home. However, for now, we have a good while to wait for such applications. That’s why 3-D printing seems less than essential to you, and that’s okay! However, to the world of industry, 3-D printing is already in heavy use, and will exist for a long, long time.

“Everyone is a maker, only I am a printer.” - Josef Prusa

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