There is a lot of buzz these days regarding 3D printing, and for good reason. Advances in this technology have made prototyping relatively fast and cheap. With access to a wide range of materials and printers, consumers are able to choose between many resolutions, colors and complexities. What used to take weeks or even months can now be accomplished in a matter of days. What used to be reserved for large companies can now be accomplished in your garage.
However, there still exists some weaknesses in 3D printing that will ultimately leave you looking for other solutions when it comes to scaling up production. For hard plastic products, we're frequently talking about Injection Molding, but I'll wait to cover that in another article.
Depending on whether you are developing the digital CAD files used to print your projects, you may find yourself hiring someone to help you along. While getting proficient in software such as Autodesk, SketchUp, OpenSCAD, TinkerCAD or MANY others, you may find that mastering them becomes less plausible than hiring someone who already has. That being said, if you are focused and able to master a software like this... if you can dream it, you can print it.
As an aside, there are also a number of shared work spaces and prototyping labs, such as NextFab in Philadelphia, that can help reduce the seemingly intimidating learning curve. Many of the companies entering this space operate on a membership plan, much like a gym, where you pay for access to classes, machines, software, materials and expertise on a monthly or annual basis. If this space interests you, be sure to check them out!
One of the major pros of 3D printing, its ability to create complex shapes with relative ease, is also a hamstring when it comes to production if not considered upfront. For example, imagine 3D printing a plastic lollipop with a hollow center. Relatively simple, right? Now imagine being asked to print 10,000. The process would take so long utilizing 3D printers, you decide to take your 3D CAD file to a Injection Molding company. However, if you were to try and mill an aluminum mold for your lollipop based on your 3D printed model, you'd have a number of problems. For instance, 3D printers typically print wax in areas that will be hollow, which is later melted away, leaving the hollow space. You can't ask injection mold machines to make the same distinction. You would likely have to print two separate parts that were married together after production, requiring you to recreate your CAD files entirely.
While this is an oversimplified example, the point remains the same, prototyping and 3D printing processes do not always transfer over the larger scale manufacturing worlds. Make sure you take this into consideration when developing your idea!
Have any questions? Feel free to send me a message and I would be glad to share/discuss any part of my experience you may be curious about.