Consumer 3D-printing growth dominates much of the technology discussion lately—for better and, perhaps, for worse at times. Every day we see more applications (3D-printed ice cream, anyone?), and 3D printers are now appearing at The Home Depot. Even Amazon is getting on board with a new 3D marketplace.
This is all fantastic news. But we must also keep in mind that 3D-printing growth as an industry requires incredible commitment and investment. This is especially true for its potential sweet spot as a substantial player with product and industrial manufacturing. Printing your own plastic figurine is great, but printing an entirely new part—to be put in actual use—on demand in minutes instead of hours is a game changer.
The technology industry has become pretty accustomed to rapid acceleration of performance. For the 3D-printing industry, the reality is much different.
One major hurdle is scalability, but it is improving. In the somewhat recent history of 3D printing, the time it took to print something was a function of its volume. So, for example, a cube with one-inch sides would take one hour to print, a cube with two-inch sides would take eight times as long to print, and another cube with three-inch sides would take 64 hours to print. This remains true for most desktop FDM-type machines, but with other technologies such as PolyJet and DLP resin systems, these rates are speeding up dramatically.
“Many people have thought that something like Moore’s Law applies to 3D printing,” says Autodesk CEO Carl Bass in a presentation at O’Reilly Solid conference. “Despite the fact that my 3D printer has microprocessors in it, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply.”
Bass further explains, “As someone who writes software, in some crazy way we could stand still, do nothing, and next year our software was twice as fast. We will not have that advantage when it comes to 3D printing. We will need to experiment, explore, invent, and discover—and come up with new ideas. So I think the improvements in 3D printing will be dramatic, but the path on which they improve will be completely different.”
The growth and continuous improvement of 3D printing is unstoppable, even if on a different scale and timeline. The current limitations—such as speed, materials, surface finish, accuracy, build volume, and more—will be overcome in the next decade, and 3D printing will continue its penetration in production. Eventually, it will establish itself as the process for complex, low-volume, high-value, highly customizable products, and it will coexist with subtractive, becoming one more tool in the manufacturing toolbox.
For its part, the manufacturing industry is stepping up to the plate with the incorporation of 3D printing. GE Aviation, a major proponent of additive manufacturing, recently took its commitment to a new level with the announcement of a $100 million new plant “to build the world’s first passenger jet engine with 3D-printed fuel nozzles and next-generation materials, including heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and breakthrough carbon-fiber fan blades woven in all three dimensions at once.”
The trajectory of 3D printing—outside the well-documented consumer applications—is significant and well on the way to blazing its own trail. Check out more of the latest:
- “The market for 3D printing, consisting of all products and services worldwide, grew to $3.07 billion last year …The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34.9 percent is the highest in 17 years. The growth of worldwide revenues over the past 26 years has averaged 27 percent.” (Wohlers Associates)
- “The medical/dental sector has strong growth potential. Currently valued at $141M, it will grow to $868M by 2025 led by dental applications and increasing use for the manufacture of orthopedic implants. Growth will also be rapid in the jewelry, design arts, and architectural sectors which will see a combined compound annual growth rate of 20% for the period.” (IDTechEx)
- “Recently in Shanghai, a Chinese company 3D-printed 10 small buildings in about a day. Walls are made of layers of a concrete aggregate that includes recycled construction waste. Each house, assembled from the printed walls, measures 200 square meters and costs about $4,800.” (The Atlantic CityLab)
- “Creating printed models, prototypes, or simple replacement parts is only the tip of the iceberg…The services are experimenting with new substances and processes that could yield entire 3D-printed systems that have circuits, power storage and logic embedded in the object itself …” (National Defense)
- “Autodesk’s printer will be open source. While the advent of desktop 3D printers was dominated by open source FDM printers, SLA printer buyers and makers have never had a similar wealth of open information to draw from. The result could be a similar boom in the number of startups making affordable SLA printers.” (Gigaom; In the Fold announcement)
With these examples and numbers in mind, it’s an exciting time for 3D-printing growth. Unlike hardware and software, however, it will be slow, steady, and experimental that wins the race.