3D printing - the good, the bad and the ugly

Posted on 01/03/2017 by IED

IED Chair Tania Humphries-Smith takes a look into another dimension of engineering design

3D printing – or is it rapid prototyping or rapid manufacture or additive manufacture or direct digital manufacturing? We don’t really have an accepted term or definition for it, although additive manufacturing was allegedly adopted in 2012 as an industry standard, because the technology focuses on the way in which a physical object is additively built, regardless of which technology is considered1.

However you define it, few people are inspired to design and produce their own 3D printer! A student, inspired by the TCT show, a show which the IED attend, designed his own 3D printer for the Brazilian market – read all about it on page 14 of this issue.

Anyhow, my personal take on 3D printing, from an educationalist’s perspective, is that it’s, in part, good, bad and ugly. First, for me it is important to divide manufacture from prototyping. In terms of manufacturing, 3D printing has the potential to be good, being another manufacturing process in the designer’s armoury that offers exciting flexibility, particularly as the technology develops. However, getting students to understand how to design specifically for manufacture by 3D printing is more challenging and more training has been advocated: “In terms of Higher Education, there are calls for greater CAD experience and Additive Manufacturing modules within degrees, as well as higher level Additive Manufacturing courses2.”

When it comes to prototyping for educational purposes, 3D printing is bad, or perhaps less useful, in my view. I am very much with Jonathan Ive, head designer at Apple, who said when speaking at London’s Design Museum:

“I’ve attacked design schools for failing to teach students how to make physical products and relying too heavily on ‘cheap’ computers.”

Students who have not had the experience of having to make their own designs ‘the hard way’ – that is, by traditional methods – do not understand the flaws of their designs.

Frankly, students who prototype their designs using 3D printing generally produce ugly designs – and I don’t mean aesthetically! This is why our own institution, when accrediting courses for the academic requirements of RProdDes, CTPD, IEng and CEng, put an emphasis on students’ undertaking practical workshops. It sets them firmly in the ‘real world’, giving them the grounding from where all engineering design must begin.

1Ian Campbell, David Bourell and Ian Gibson, ‘Additive manufacturing: rapid prototyping comes of age’ (2012) 18 Rapid Prototyping Journal 255

2UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2013).Evidence Report 76 - Technology and Skills in the Aerospace and Automotive Industries

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