The 3D printing business is at a crossroads. The issue is whether the technology can take the leap to challenge traditional production methods or will remain a large and valuable niche process.
The explosion of interest in 3D (or additive) printing during the past decade is understandable: It can drastically reduce and in some cases eliminate expensive distribution and supply chains. The time-consuming and expensive process of sending replacement parts, for instance, would be revolutionized.
3D printing has not evolved to the point that it replaces traditional production, however. It is thought of today as a tool for highly individualized products such as dentures, hearing aids and even bone replacement. It also excels at creating prototypes and relatively small numbers of objects. In those cases, the costs are less and timelines shorter than production lines. In addition, the ability to link 3D printers to sophisticated computer modeling software creates more perfectly formed end products.
The goal in the sector is to enable 3D printing to be used in mass production. That is the direction in which HP is moving. Today, HP made several announcements related to its Jet Fusion line. It has launched the HP Partner First 3D Printing Specialization program, established “more than 12” HP 3D Printing Reference and Experience Centers, and is partnering with expanding its materials ecosystem via a partnership with Henkel AG & Co.
In his report on the HP announcements, Computerworld’s Lucas Mearian suggested that HP believes 3D printing “will rival standard manufacturing technologies, such as injection molding.” Traditional methods will not disappear, but 3D printing will become a far more important player:
HP claims its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers will enable mass production of parts through additive manufacturing (3D printing), instead of rapid prototyping, for which the technology is typically used. The new printers are unlikely to be used to produce millions or billions of production parts. Think, instead, in terms of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of parts, HP said.
Mearian’s view is echoed by Michael Molitch-Hou, who suggests at Manufacturing.com that HP has its sights set on “chipping away at the $12 trillion manufacturing sector.”
Those in the industry agree. Star Rapid Founder and President Gordon Styles wrote in a guest post at 3D Printing Industry that the 3D printing industry will experience great changes in the next three to five years. He suggests that the HP announcements are a harbinger of this change:
With the HP Jet Fusion – and the other machines like it that are sure to follow – commercial applications for low-volume 3D plastic printing will be an attractive option for bringing products to market quickly with shorter lead times and virtually no tooling costs. Such machines also make it easy to do design modifications on the fly with no expensive machining involved. Star Rapid intends to have one of these printers on our shop floor as soon as it’s available.
3D printing, which has a much longer history than casual observers suspect, is entering a transition phase. The goal of the people in the sector is to move from being a very potent but relatively limited technique to one that is the co-equal of much broader established approaches.
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.