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Are 3D Printers the future of assembly lines? Are 3D Printers the future of assembly lines?
by Joseph Gatt
2023-05-12 07:16:27
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The good: 3D printers can carve, paint, assemble, heat and cool, and assemble again, materials as diverse as textiles, rubber, china, metals (not quite yet for metals), chemicals, organic food components, plastic, tin, you name it.

The complicated: 3D printers demand a lot of expertise. Big brains need to play with the software to design and assemble products. As in design the product, insert the ingredients, code the software so the product components get assembled properly and get printed properly.

thrdi00001_400The bad: as of now, 3D printers, like paper printers, can only take one instruction at a time. You can't really give 3D printers a series of products to carve and assemble and expect them to assemble each individual product in that order across time.

So, are 3D printers the future?

For what I've seen and heard, not really.

As of today (the day this paper was written: August 10, 2021) 3D printers are only really good when it comes to carving paper or china or perhaps glass, and painting paper and china. So you can make vases, statues, cardboards, books, souvenirs and the like, but not much else.

But, futurists (and investors) are excited about the possibility for 3D printers to do a lot more, as in carve and assemble food, metal components and products, perhaps furniture, perhaps even something as big as a car, perhaps even something as big as an airplane or spaceship. So we'll 3D-print our spaceships fast enough and precisely enough that we can all move to Mars, as spaceships will have seats available for everyone.

But I don't see things headed in that direction yet.

Problem number one: food is a combination of, perhaps, too many ingredients and temperatures for 3D printers to be able to assemble our food products. So you're probably going to need a 3D printer the size of a kitchen if you want your 3D printer to assemble your meal (not quite the size of a kitchen, perhaps the size of a kitchenette).

Plus, if you're going to have hundreds of ingredients go through the 3D printer, being boiled and cooked and refrigerated and peeled and cleaned and the like, you're going to have to pay a lot of maintenance fees. Because, let's face it, too much steam tends to damage electronic machines.

But, if you want your 3D printer to assemble chocolate chip cookies, why not!

Problem number two: the level of precision, expertise, time, energy and concentration designing and engineering products would require on a computer.

Add the frustration of some options not being available with the 3D printer when those options would be available with other machines. And you can't really assemble your product with a machine in addition to the 3D printer.

Good thing number 1: the 3D printer makes assembly lines easier for some products. I think we can have better, cheaper furniture or fashion items using 3D printers.

And, with geeks (perhaps like myself) playing around with 3D printers and imagining new lines of furniture or clothing, perhaps 3D printers could help conceptualize furniture or fashion items or accessories that would be a lot more eco-friendly, robust, resilient, ergonomic and artistically aesthetic and appealing. So, good for the consumer and the environment.

Good thing number 2: You won't have ONE brand of 3D printers. 3D printers are probably going to come in various forms and shapes. You'll have 3D printers for baking (and perhaps cooking simple stuff, as in spaghetti or ravioli or perhaps simple sandwiches and the like). Then you'll have 3D printers for metal products (as in nails and hammers and all the stuff you can buy at the hardware store). Then perhaps one 3D printer for plastic products, another separate 3D printer for cardboard products and the like. And perhaps 3D printers that can blend in several elements, as in wood + metal + cardboard.

Good thing number 3: if you play around long enough with a 3D printer, you can perhaps find construction materials or packaging materials that are a lot eco-friendlier than cardboard or cement or glass or all those things that harm the environment and that are being depleted. So, for example, instead of making glass out of sand (which is how it's made), you could perhaps design glass that mixes plastic with cotton or something (don't know really, just an idea). So engineers will come up with eco-friendly replacements for resources that are being depleted.

Complicated thing number 1: finding software engineers and developers that can handle all the coding. And making the software simple and user-friendly.

Complicated thing number 2: software engineers are going to do a lot of complaining about quite a few options not being available on 3D printers, which can mean the consumer product will not fit the original aspiration of the designer.

Complicated thing number 3: Paper printers are hard enough to get to work (with all the paper jams) and break pretty easily (all they do is put ink on sheets of paper). So imagine the kind of machine that carves and assembles and paints day in and day out, with all the heat and chemicals that go into the thing. Now they would break pretty easily.

So first, you're going to have to monitor production, all the time. Kind of like when you print-out a document and you're constantly checking if the paper printer hasn't stopped working properly. You're going to have to check whether the 3D printer has not spilled paint all over the place and whether the metals haven't overheated or blown up or something.

This basically means the possibility of 3D printers going out of order and being too frequently broken beyond repair is a high possibility. And that means constantly purchasing new 3D printers. If that happens too frequently, 3D-printer users are going to start designing machines that would be more resilient.

So it's not like “we have 3D printers now, we can all go party and let the 3D printer take care of production and we'll feed off that”. Maybe in 100 years. We're not quite there yet.

As of today, 3D-printers are a slightly better version of traditional assembly lines. As in more flexible versions of the assembly lines, which allow to assemble a variety of products instead of a single product, with minimal human interference and monitoring in the assembly line.

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