Editor's Note: Pardon the Interruption

September 2, 2014

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The general media hyped up 3D printing as the end of manufacturing as we knew it. We knew better than that to be true, as it has proven to be a supportive rather than disruptive technology. We won't be seeing the real game-changing effects of 3D printing until we design and engineer products around it.

When 3D printing finally burst into the mainstream, some manufacturers downplayed it as a fad, while some took it as a death knell for traditional manufacturing. Yet there were others that saw and embraced it as a supportive rather than disruptive technology.

Additive manufacturing has had a few years to simmer, and we can rest assured traditional manufacturing isn’t dying – at least not anytime soon. We know 3D printing has a place in prototyping and validating, jig and fixture making, and, in growing cases, small-batch and custom manufacturing where printed parts can meet performance requirements. If anything, 3D printing hasn’t been disruptive enough. But as IndustryWeek’s interview with Jon Cobb of 3D printing giant Stratasys demonstrates, real change is percolating.

Where 3D printing’s true disruptive potential lies is the rewrite of product design and engineering, from the consolidation of many assembly-required subcomponents into a single part, to the use of biomimicry for creating organic-looking, internally complex, load-bearing parts that can’t be made from machining, fabricating, or molding – as explained in the Cobb interview – to goods that feature modularity for swap-outs and upgrades in Lego-like fashion.

It will be many years, if not decades, before stuff like this becomes perfected and commonplace, so manufacturers can relax. But as today’s kids grow up to become our future product designers and engineers, thinking in and making with 3D printing as naturally as we think, design, and engineer with traditional methods, truly revolutionary changes to manufacturing will be in the offing.

William Ng, Editor-in-Chiefwng@thomasnet.com
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