Advantages vs disadvantages of 3D printing in research and development

20 January 2021 Resources

3D printing technology is fundamentally changing the way we prototype and test medical devices – but what are the advantages? Potential challenges? What impact will it have on medical device manufacturing?

What is 3D printing?

3D printing brings together various processes to create a fully formed device or component of almost any geometry from a single digital file. An object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the desired object is created.

New advances in 3D printing have led to a drop in the cost of equipment. With improved technology and an increased range of engineering materials available, this technique is becoming more popular in research and development activities worldwide. It removes the need for more traditional manufacturing processes such as milling, grinding, or sheet metal and allows for quick and cost-effective prototyping.

Advantages of 3D printing in research and development
  • High-speed, low-cost prototyping
  • Reduces the time between design iterations
  • Highlights potential risk areas early on
  • A faster route to market
  • Inspires innovation
Potential challenges of in-house 3D printing
  • Cost and reliability of hardware
  • Speed
  • Size and design restrictions
  • Regulatory implications

We have used two state-of-the-art 3D printers, which both run on Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology. FDM printers work by extruding a thermoplastic polymer through a heated nozzle and depositing it onto a build platform. It is a significantly cheaper and quicker method for producing prototypes as opposed to more expensive technologies such as Stereolithography (SLA) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).

As technology develops further, the 3D printing process will become faster and more cost-efficient, enabling R&D to experiment with different techniques and printing materials. It also opens up the potential for designing inexpensive jigs and fixtures for production alongside the ability to develop molds for casting plastic and rubber parts in-house.

ITL recently collaborated with Kings College London (KCL) to develop three prototypes to be used in an MRI scanner, requiring all components to be plastic and non-metallic, therefore lending itself to the 3D printing process.

Tom Haydon, Mechanical Systems Engineer, ITL, commented, “It’s the perfect tool for Research and Development as it allows us to quickly prototype and test small components in a short space of time. This permits highly iterative design changes which were not possible with traditional manufacturing methods.”

Dan Hollands, Mechanical Engineer, ITL, said, “3D printing has played a huge role in R&D. It provides a lot of freedom to develop products and push the boundaries with experimentation – as a design consultancy and contract manufacturer, it allows our engineers to be more radical with our designs and test prototypes in-house before implementing changes.”

We have entered a world where prototypes are built at speed for a considerably lower price, but this method is not suitable for every project. 3D printing is still unable to compete with more traditional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding in terms of speed and cost.

Download our advantages vs disadvantages of 3D printing in research and development infographic: