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3D printing was first developed as a means for faster prototyping. With a traditional injection-molded prototype it might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take weeks to produce a single mold. That is highly impractical if you are trying to improve on design with each new iteration. 3D printing technology greatly reduces the lead times required in traditional manufacturing, allowing a prototype to be fabricated in hours, not weeks, and at a fraction of the cost. The automotive and aerospace industries are just 2 industries involved in manufacturing taking advantage of advances in 3D printing technologies.


Traditional manufacturing is the most cost-effective at large volumes. In situations where a product is not going to be mass produced, 3D printing (aka ‘additive manufacturing’ in manufacturing circles) is ideal as it allows for the relatively inexpensive production of a product in much smaller volumes or on a case-by-case basis. In this same vein, advances in rapid prototyping (RP) technology has also given rise to the development of materials and processes, such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)  that are suitable for the manufacture of the final version of a product, not just its prototype. This is called Rapid Manufacturing.


With cloud computing technologies so prevalent today, there are now companies that offer cloud-based additive manufacturing services where consumers can build parts and objects remotely without the expense of purchasing a 3D printer.


Companies now offer mass customization services where consumers can customize objects through simple web-based customization software, ordering the resulting items - mobile phone cases for example - as unique 3D printed objects.


3D printing technologies have created what is called ‘agile tooling’. This is where tooling used in manufacturing processes such as hydro-forming, stamping, and injection molding is designed by modular means, enabling quick prototyping and responses to tooling and fixture needs.

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