Three-dimensional (3D) printing has been a hot topic for several years now, constantly appearing in news cycles with coverage of new developments and advances that have been made with it. Behind 3D printing is a community of individuals, something of a fandom, that is completely captivated what has been referred to as "the next industrial revolution"—but, is all this hype warranted?
The answer to this is both yes and no; you won't be buying a 3D printer that can fit in your house and print anything anytime soon, however, 3D printing does hold a lot of value for industrial applications.
Utilsing 3D Printing in Electrical Design
While it perhaps is not the first place somebody would look when considering where 3D printing could be applied, electronic and electrical engineering has been viewed as a serious contender for facilitating innovation in the manufacture of electronics and other related technologies.
Since 3D printing supports printing with multiple materials, the development and production of embedded circuits and circuit boards is something that has been demonstrated time and time again.
The use of 3D printing should be limited when it comes to electrical design. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Whether 3D printing is useful in a given electrical engineering scenario rests on factors such as the materials that need to be printed with, how fast the printing process needs to be, and what quality or resolution is required for the end product.
This usefulness, however, is limited; supply voltage fluctuations, a lack of control of multi-material dispensing systems, insufficient thermal sensing, and no real-time temperature controls are all things that fall short and lead to problems such as warping, distortion, and residual stresses that take place during the 3D printing process.
3D Printing Popularity
3D printing has become so popular that many talk about a so-called "3D printing hype" where consumers' expectations go far beyond what is realistic. This isn't helped by the media who, predictably, spin stories, write clickbait headlines, and misleadingly report 3D printing developments that get people talking for all the wrong reasons and spreading misinformation.
While its popularity is somewhat new, 3D printing is not; it is a 30-year-old technology after all. It is only because of patent expiration alongside improvements with controller boards and software that 3D printing technologies have entered the public domain for the benefit of the many.
Furthermore, 3D printers are now far more accessible than they once were. They are cheaper to make, there is a lot more open-source software available, and they use far less power. These factors, in addition to the potential of 3D printing, have given rise to this hype.
Is the 3D Printing Hype Unwarranted?
While the hype surrounding 3D printing isn't wholly unwarranted—there is huge potential as the technology is developed further, especially on the industrial level—some aspects are.
There is a need to dispel the myths that surround 3D printing, particularly that it is a 'plug-and-play' solution that can create anything. This is not the case and expectations such as these invariably lead to disappointment. Despite this, though, the hype and myths also benefit 3D printing and play a role in advancing the technology because it is in manufacturers' best interests to try and meet consumers expectations and demands no matter how unrealistic they may be.
The exposure that 3D printing now has, something that increases in line with widespread media coverage and consumer hype, attracts talent, companies, and investors that can better the technology, make good use of it, and plough money into R&D. This also allows industry actors and government officials to be better educated and properly understand where 3D printing technology fits in, where it can be used, and what it can realistically achieve. Over time, this should have a trickle-down effect.
3D printing's biggest problem perhaps isn't the technology itself, though. Rather, it is that it is primarily being targeted towards mainstream consumers instead of people who have a use for the technology such as designers, engineers, and other 'makers'.
Naturally, consumers have caught wind of something that looks and sounds great (and it does!) and is expecting far too much at a time when the technology is not in its prime.