The short answer is ‘yes’.
The complicated answer is yes, no, kind of, in many ways, and not at all.
3D Printing has made it affordable for inventors and Makers at home and in small businesses to design, prototype and build their design in their own garage. Entire markets have opened up in the area of 3D printable plastics, and plans and information on buying or building your own 3D printers are rampantly available on the Internet.
Of course that has an effect on commercial fabrication. How could it not? Small scale inventors who normally would come to us for prototype development can whip up their prototype in their basement while watching an A’s game. Desktop models like Stratasys’s Mojo (Isn’t it just so cute? You just want to give it a squeeze!) cost less than a new car. With it, you can make minute adjustments to your design almost instantaneously. Plastics fabrication companies can’t offer that kind of turn-around and flexibility. Consider that even if we have three commercial 3D printers in our shop, at any given time all of them may be running other projects. You can bring us your design, but unless a printer is free that moment, your project goes into the cue and gets served when the machine and engineer are free to do the run. Doing it yourself seems pretty good, doesn’t it?
So now we come to the no part of the answer. Savvy fabricators have brought 3D printing into their shops, making it easy for you to bring us your prototype plans and whip up your part for you. Why would you do that? Because while owning these machines is becoming more affordable, it’s still worlds away from costing the same as your morning Egg McMuffin. And that’s just the machine, not the materials.
Using a 3D Printer also requires a little bit of fabricating and materials knowledge, and while many of the Maker people out there have materials engineering backgrounds, a great many idea-creators don’t. Commercial fabricators are experts, ready and able to answer questions, help choose the right materials for your project, and review your plans to help keep your project on track. As cute as MOJO is, he just can’t do that yet.
And what happens once your prototype is complete? Manufacturing one or two items in the backyard sounds great, but what happens when your patent is approved and you start taking orders? Large scale manufacturing takes manpower and equipment that the home Maker doesn’t usually have on hand.
The last issue is materials. Few plastics are suitable for 3D Printing, and they are expensive specialty resins. There are thousands of plastic types and each has its own specifications for molding, bonding and shaping. Most of them aren’t 3D Printer compatible. 3D Printers can’t vacuum form ABS, custom bend polycarbonate, or machine parts. For that, you need specialty equipment beyond a 3D printer.
To wrap this up before I run out of coffee, while 3D Printing is having an effect on the plastics fabrication industry, it’s not necessarily a negative one. More people are creating at home, but that means so many more are bringing us their projects for design finalizing, material finishing, and production. Is it possible that one day 3D Printing will put fabricators out of business? Of course it’s possible, but not until 3D Printing can take the place of expertise, skill, and high-volume equipment.