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3D printing technology has come of age, its application is widespread and has already started to replace many manufacturing processes.

Let us cut to the chase: I am wondering if we can really print anything under the Sun. If not, what kind of inorganic tool will never be 3D printed? (Set in the present day and every component must be printed according to design intent)

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on details of the 3D printing process. For example: steels rely on formation of crystal grains to acquire correct physical properties. Formation of those grains is achieved by appropriate heat treatment. Construction materials and tools routinely require processes other than simple shaping to fulfil the needs. If your 3D printing is like present techniques, where you lay layer after layer, then internal structure of printed material is suitable for surprisingly small number of practical applications. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Dec 12 '16 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ Everything with a structure smaller than the printer resolution. Integrated Circuits for example. $\endgroup$ – Alexander von Wernherr Dec 12 '16 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ you can however print circuit boards. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 12 '16 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ Are there additional steps allowed from the 3D printing, or are we assuming that every tool should be printed>used with no intermediary steps? (It's important because most steel tools could be shaped, but wouldn't be useful without heat treating) $\endgroup$ – Delioth Dec 12 '16 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ Considering 3d printers are being used to manufacture parts for rockets and nuclear power plants I would not be quick to assume that strength or the integrity of metal parts is at question. There is clearly room to improve but these printers exist/are in development. $\endgroup$ – user2389345436357 Dec 12 '16 at 21:07
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Crystals / anything made out of crystalline material

3D printing is pretty much just a fancy way of doing sintering or precision melting/re-solidification. That instantly precludes some things.

Crystals for instance are ordered down to the atomic level. This can never be made with sintering or smelting. Also some crystals require very high pressure to form, pressures that would make it impossible to let a 3D printer do its job.

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  • $\begingroup$ Prestressed concrete may be an interesting example... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 12 '16 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Diamond is used a lot in abrasives, grinding tools, and high-precision blades. Crystalline carbides like silicon carbide and are used in a wide variety of tools. Microchips are made from crystalline silicon. Those are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head, I am sure there are many others. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Dec 12 '16 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Delioth Ok, so you can't print a spring steel chisel (as specifically stated in another answer), but is there no alternative which can be printed? A chisel is a chisel, is it required to be made from spring steel to be a tool which fills the same role? It's a very uninteresting answer to pick a material that can't be printed and then find the tools it's used in without specifying how that material is absolutely required to make that tool. There are many alternatives and the answer doesn't specify the quality of the printed tool compared to its traditionally manufactured counterpart. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 12 '16 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like a limitation of current 3D printing methods rather than a limitation of 3D printing in principle. Currently, diamonds can be grown in a lab one layer of atoms at a time. It doesn't take much creativity to imagine ways in which the structure could be guided to form a particular shape. (don't mind me hanging on the OP's use of the word "never") $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Dec 12 '16 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Delioth Nanosteel seems to work for tools. The makers claim that their product can be used in additive manufacturing while providing performance properties "comparable to conventionally manufactured M2 tool steels". I would assume a functional chisel could be made from this material. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 12 '16 at 22:08
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In general, materials which require extreme production conditions, or devices require great levels of detail to function, could never be produced by a 3D printer. These include:

  • Computer chips (the transistors are far to small to be printed; it takes hundreds of steps to make a computer chip and the only reason they don't cost millions per chip is because we produce them in batches of thousands).
  • Components made of metal alloys with very high melting points (the printer wouldn't be able to melt them to print them)
  • Crystals such as diamond, which require enormous amounts of pressure to form.

In addition, I believe that it will always be cheaper and easier to mass-produce some things with specialized machines than with a 3D printer. If you have a very specific job that needs doing, a tool designed specifically for that job will almost always work better than a generic tool made to handle a wide range of jobs. That said, 3D printers can greatly accelerate the design process, and there will be many instances where it's easier or cheaper just to 3D print a medium-quality product, as opposed to purchasing the highest-quality version.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, processor is kinda "printed". Just not the way we think when taking about 3d prints. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 12 '16 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ A 3D printer has a head that deposits material. You couldn't print a processor that way. $\endgroup$ – J. Antonio Perez Dec 12 '16 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Modern lithography required hundreds of steps and a huge range of chemicals. It's as far removed from printing as a printer is from stone tablets $\endgroup$ – J. Antonio Perez Dec 12 '16 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat: The process also involves adding material. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 12 '16 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ Growing diamonds does not necessarily require high pressures. Pretty high temperatures are still a must though. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Dec 12 '16 at 21:51
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Chisels, saws, axes, and knives; basically any cutting tool. That is, anything with spring steel, they all require heat treating. You would be surprised how many things have springs in them.

Honestly, anything that cannot be made of cast steel cannot be made with a printer.

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  • $\begingroup$ For some things the initial shape could be made with a printer and then it could be chemically or thermally modified afterwards. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Dec 12 '16 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat, not with current technology. When I was in college, I worked for a materials-testing lab; from time to time, we'd get samples from people who thought they'd figured out how to make additive manufacturing of metal as good as casting, forging, or other traditional techniques. I never saw anything that actually succeeded. $\endgroup$ – Mark Dec 12 '16 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ This would include combustion engines, wheels, car springs... Basically everything mechanical on a vehicle couldn't be printed. $\endgroup$ – RemarkLima Dec 12 '16 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ well to be fair a lot of that has to do with the planes of weakness created by the stepped building method, continuous application solves that making something as strong as cast, they just haven't figured out how to do it with metal yet. . youtube.com/watch?v=ihR9SX7dgRo $\endgroup$ – John Dec 13 '16 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ @RemarkLima Engines parts have already been printed for a while and GE reported they printed a full jet engine over a year ago. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Dec 13 '16 at 12:12
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Long fibers or anything that requires unified process. Some properties cannot be gained with an additional manufacturing steps. Nowadays only metal and plastic can be printed.

It is more often about feasibility. You could add one metal atom at a time, but it would take for ever to print something not nano-scaled. Also there is price, speed etc.

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    $\begingroup$ I would say long fibers are the simplest and earliest form of 3D printing. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Dec 12 '16 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean some properties can't be gained with "additive manufacturing"? Or can't be gained by additional manufacturing steps? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 12 '16 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ You forgot about concrete and mud. Not that you would make tools out of those... ? $\endgroup$ – Okuma.Scott Dec 12 '16 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ Not only metal and plastic. One system uses plaster of paris or similar; one print head can handle cheez-wiz. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 12 '16 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz 3D print your lunch? $\endgroup$ – Michael Dec 13 '16 at 5:18
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The question is not whether you can, it's whether you should.

It's unlikely that there will be anything that is truly impossible to make using something that can be defined as 3D printing - but there will be many things that will never be economically viable to make in that way.

Generally, the simpler and stronger an item needs to be, the less point there is in printing it. So maybe you could 3D print a hammer, but it'd make much more sense to make it in the usual way.

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