3D printing is on the verge of upending many production and manufacturing processes that have been in place for decades.
“It’s in a transition right now from prototyping, where it has been for the past 30 years, to low-volume manufacturing,” says Frank Marangell, the president and CEO of Rize.
Marangell, whose company makes 3D printers that can be used in any setting, said that about half the market is controlled by Stratasys and 3D Systems. The other players are getting a push because some original patents are expiring and entering the public domain, stimulating innovation. This, coupled with ideas not connected with the legacy approaches, is leading to the all-important move from prototyping to manufacturing.
3D Printing Parts Production
The massive potential of 3D printing is well illustrated in the spare parts sector. Traditionally, of course, spare parts are transported from where they are fabricated to where they are to be used. In the world of 3D printing, much of this expensive network is not needed. The piece is simply printed where it is needed, reducing cost and increasing timeliness.
Spare parts are only one of the many possible game changers offered by 3D printing. The industry seems poised to make big inroads but, to this point, has not lived up to the lofty expectations that it generates. That is not a knock on 3D printing. Sexy new technologies are habitually overhyped by marketing department trying to get people excited and executives trying to find funding.
3D Production Market Movement
The 3D printing market is encountering turbulence, which may be a function of the transition Marangell describes. Motif Investing released what in essence are somewhat contradictory findings on 3D printing. Motif cites 3D research from Wohlers Associates that predicts the segment will grow from $7.3 billion last year to $12.7 billion in 2018 and $21.2 billion two years later. Those are very good numbers. However, things are not going smoothly, at least among the market leaders:
While 3D printing was once hailed as being part of a new industrial revolution, investing in the 3D printing industry has been a lot like riding a nauseating roller coaster for investors. Over the past five years, stocks for Stratasys and 3D Systems — the two biggest names in the 3D printing sector — have skyrocketed then fell. 3D Systems shot up more than 600 percent in three years, then fell to a four-year low last year, but is back up again now.
3D Printing and Manufacturing
Insiders say that at this point the next step, and one that truly would be transformational, is deeper involvement in manufacturing. Davide Sher, the founder of 3D Printing Business Media Ltd., wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge that manufacturing is limited to a narrow range of products, such as hearing aids and dental and medical implants.
That may soon change, however, Sher wrote. “[T]he infrastructure is now being put in place to truly change manufacturing. Manufacturing and enterprise infrastructure giants such as SAP, Oracle, GE, Airbus, HP, Google are investing significantly to truly digitally transform manufacturing through additive processes.”
Even if the 3D industry’s fondest wishes to move into production are met, there will always be a huge role for traditional manufacturing processes.
The transition will never be a full one, according to Proto Labs CEO Vicki Holt. “Most of our 3D printing sales are for prototypes, however, we are seeing a growing number of customers who are interested in working with us to design products specifically for 3D printing,” Holt wrote. “We believe the technology will continue to be used for end-use production, but there’s a long way to go. For example, if a product could be machined or molded, it would usually be more economical to produce these parts with CNC [Computer numerical control] machining or injection molding, rather than with 3D printing. But if the part is complex and delivers additional value (light weight or other functional features), then 3D printing might make the most sense for production.”
The journey from one-off customized products to manufacturing is great. Marangell says that in plastics-based 3D printing, five areas must be perfected: the material properties (ensuring that the copy is equal to the original); the surface finish; the geometric accuracy (ensuring that the location of elements on the copied item are within set tolerances of where they are on the original); feature detail accuracy and color. Marangell adds that metal-based 3D also faces cost and product solidity challenges.
Marangell says that the timing and economics of traditional versus 3D printing are significantly different. Time and money is spent in creating an injection molded tool. Once that is done, units can be produced quickly. Creating an object via 3D printing takes longer and is more expensive on a per-unit basis, but there is no upfront cost and creation starts much earlier.
Like most ambitious technologies, 3D has not arrived as a fully formed game-changer. It’s clearly evolving, however, and will have an ever greater impact as time passes.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.