Exciting potential from 3D printing
From progressive art to prosthetic limbs, 3D printing is being applied in surprising and creative ways. While two trends – falling prices and expiring trends – are supporting the technology’s spread, it poses no threat to mainstream manufacturing methods. This is evolution at the edge, not revolution at the core.
Back in the 1980s, 3D printing started as a production alternative for the creation of prototypes in various manufacturing facilities. Today, 3D printing technology is still used primarily for prototyping and distributed manufacturing, but we are seeing valuable new applications in construction, architecture, industrial design, the automotive industry, aerospace and many other fields. In light of such promising developments, IDC expects worldwide shipments of 3D printers to rocket to a remarkable 283,435 units in 2017 from just 22,542 units in 2012.
So where does the future of this seemingly boundless technology lie? For a start, its ability to produce exact models of future products at significantly lower costs than conventional prototyping methods ensures that this particular line of use will continue to develop. When it comes to mass production, however, 3D printing poses no threat to modern manufacturing models. First, 3D printing remains a time-consuming operation; based on the quality and size of a given model, the printing time can range from several hours to several days. Second, unit production costs remain constant and are much higher than in the case of mass production.
But the applications of 3D printing in manufacturing are not aimed at competing with current production models; rather they are designed as complementary technologies that can help to drive efficiencies in product development, machine maintenance and the supply of spare parts, among other areas. Leading manufacturing companies, for example, will soon begin to realise the benefits involved in being able to independently print their own unique parts, thereby reducing the need to outsource. Such an approach can improve lead times and quality (thanks to the precise adjusting of printing parameters), reduce the complexity of the manufacturing process, and speed up the delivery of the end product to the customer. Simply put, 3D printing brings with it a whole new wave of flexibility and efficiency advantages for various manufacturing industries.
We have already seen numerous interesting uses for 3D printing, and many of the companies that are now leveraging this technology are focused on developing unique and, in many respects, creative ways of designing 3D print applications. In addition, several progressive artists such as Ioan Florea and Nick Ervinck have demonstrated the magic of 3D printing through their artistic works, while there have also been well-documented cases of the technology being used to develop prosthetic limbs for amputees in Africa. And as the originality of product design plays a hugely significant role in differentiating commercial products in the marketplace, the technology deserves to be more deeply explored by manufacturers.
The 3D printing process starts well before the 3D printer is actually used. 3D modelling tools are essential in the design phase, and companies must carefully choose and master these tools before they are in a position to develop the applicable models. In terms of skills, the efficient use of 3D printing in manufacturing is a long-term process that involves a lot of engineering and testing. However, once these advanced capabilities have been developed, the results can be easily transferred and the models can immediately be printed anywhere in the world.
The increasing popularity of 3D printing is also supported by the fact that the price of these machines is decreasing (from the range of tens of thousands of dollars, to just thousands of dollars), and smaller models for home use are appearing on the market, such as Micro 3D Printer from M3D (financed by Kickstarter, the price starts as low as US$349).
The range of materials available for 3D printing is also developing dynamically, and already includes many types of plastic, foam, metal, wood, glass and paper.
Nevertheless, IDC believes that a focus on discovering new applications for 3D printing and developing internal design capabilities are the most viable long-term strategies for leveraging this technology. Investing in the ownership of expensive, top-notch 3D printers can easily be offset by outsourcing the printing process to a locally established third party. This is a crucial consideration, because exorbitant hardware costs can still destroy many otherwise valuable business cases.
Another key driver of the market’s growth came in February with the expiration of various long-standing patents that prevented competition in the market for the most sophisticated and functional 3D printers. These patents included a technology known as laser sintering, which boasts such high resolutions that it can create goods that can be sold as finished products. As key patents continue to expire, IDC expects a significant drop in the price of such devices, which is exactly what happened when key patents on a more basic form of 3D printing – known as fused deposition modelling (FDM) – expired. The result was an explosion in sales of open-source FDM printers, including MakerBot and RepRap. In just a few years after the patents expired, the price of the cheapest FDM printers had decreased from many thousands of dollars to just a couple of hundred.
When combined with the ever-broadening range of applications and materials available for 3D printing, it is clear that the expiration of these patents and the resultant fall in prices will play a critical role in spurring the period of phenomenal growth that IDC expects in the global 3D market over the coming years. And once the inherent advantages of employing 3D printing technology within the manufacturing process become even more obvious, there will be no bounds to how far its use can go. Progressive art and prosthetic limbs are just the beginning.
Martin Kuban is a senior research analyst at the technology research and advisory firm IDC in Prague
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Updated: July 3, 2014 04:00 AM