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By: David Howard | G+

How will 3D printing affect electrical contact manufacturing?

Tremendous advances have been made in 3D printing, and the cost of 3D printers has been dropping steadily, causing many futurists to predict it will usher in a new industrial revolution. But the reality is a bit more complex. While 3D printing is advancing rapidly, it’s still far from large-scale manufacturing use. At this time it’s still generally used for prototyping and design testing.  

3D printers use plastics or metal powders as “toner”

Today most consumer and professional 3D printers use plastic beads that are liquefied for printing, or metal powder that is solidified by laser to create its printed items. And while the end product can be intricate and near final quality straight out of the printer, for large-scale manufacturing, the process is still too slow. It’s much more efficient to engineer a product, 3D prototype it, and then scale up manufacturing using traditional methods.

Electrical contacts present unique challenges

While gears and various parts are easily “printed” with 3D printers, the manufacturing of an electrical contact involves specialized processes. Specific metals must be used and special contact pads brazed into place. Similarly, the contactor assembly involves several intricate parts - which while able to be 3D printed - are more affordably produced traditionally. And of course, electrical contacts need to handle high temperatures and abusive environments, which fall outside the abilities of today’s 3D printed parts. One day it's likely that 3D printing will catch up to traditional manufacturing in speed and durability. The appeal of "printing" a 3D replacement part, competitively in volume, will certainly be an attractive option.

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