To hear enthusiasts tell it, the technique of additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has the potential to change not just manufacturing, but the world.
3D printing today makes prototyping and manufacturing complex, custom objects simpler but tomorrow, everyone will have a 3D printer on their desk and make their own sneakers and hats.
3D printing is getting hyped right now, with a front page story in The Economist and a long article in the Times, but we actually think it is underhyped.
Even if it fails to meet some of the expectations of its boosters (and that’s not a foregone conclusion), 3D printing will still probably become an enormous industry and have a tremendous impact on how we buy, sell and produce things.
What Is 3D Printing?
Technically, here’s — very roughly — how 3D printing works: a big machine takes a raw material, today mostly plastics and some metals, and melts them into a microscopic layer. And then another layer. And then another layer. Until you end up with an actual object.
Thanks to 3D printing, to manufacture something today, you need only a printer, raw material, and software to tell the printer what to print. This is why it’s a big deal: it’s potentially the biggest change in how we make things since the invention of assembly lines made the modern era possible.
3D Printing Today
What does 3D printing look like today? According to several reports, the sale of 3D printers and associated services like software is already a billion dollar market. But nobody disputes that 3D printing is very far from a utopian 3D-printer-on-every-desk future.
Today most 3D printing technology uses too few materials, and is too crude in some ways, for most finished products we buy today.
Here’s what people mostly use 3D printing for these days:
- Rapid prototyping. This was the early, and still the biggest business case for 3D printing. In plenty of industries from architecture to aerospace, the drawing board and computer screen only takes you so far. You need to build tangible prototypes to move forward. That used to be a big expense, and more importantly, a huge time-suck: there’s no reason a designer should have to wait days for someone to make a prototype until they can move forward. With a 3D printer, designers can have a rough prototype quickly and be much more productive. The word “designers” is making it sound like it’s a few guys in Brooklyn, but 3D printing is already changing the way we make buildings, cars and planes.
- Specialty manufacturing. 3D printing is already being used for finished products, but still in specific niches. Some industrial components that would be costly or complex to manufacture are already being 3D-printed. One exciting area with huge potential is prosthetics, where 3D printer allow highly customised prosthetics to be made.
- Hobbyists. One of the reasons why you hear about 3D printing is that there’s a small but vocal and growing hobbyists community who enjoy making small doodads. The hobbyist component of 3D printing doesn’t sound impressive, until you realise that the first people who cared about things like cars, planes and personal computers were hobbyists.
3D Printing Tomorrow
We can all picture the an utopian 3D printing future: it would basically look like Star Trek, where replicators can make anything with a mere voice command. This is the “3D printer on every desk and in every home” scenario.
But even if that scenario doesn’t pan out, 3D printing is going to be a huge industry because it’s much more efficient than traditional manufacturing. The main reason is that the current way to manufacture things is to chip away at a block or sheets of raw material, whereas 3D printing adds raw material as needed. Current manufacturing processes create as much as 90% waste. So even if 3D printing is limited to the business world, it’s going to be a huge industry.
And the printer in every home scenario isn’t that far-fetched either — only as far-fetched as “a computer in every home” was in 1975. Like any other piece of technology, 3D printers are always getting cheaper and better. 3D printers today can be had for about $5,000.
From Here To There
So, how do we get from here to there, what are the pitfalls, the opportunities and the big questions?
Today, 3D printers are too unreliable, slow, rough, and manufacturing large objects is cost-prohibitive. It’s hard to build objects with high polish. But early cars were slow, dangerous, and notoriously unreliable.
The biggest difference between today’s manufacturing and a 3D printing world is going to be the advent of mass customisation. When each product is printed individually from software, there’s never going to be a reason to buy something that looks like something someone else owns. Companies will have to change not just their manufacturing but their product lines, marketing and even business models.
A serious question is whether 3D printing will be a “jobless industry.” History and economics teaches us that new industries often end up creating more jobs than they destroy, either directly (blacksmiths replaced by car repairmen) or indirectly through higher economic growth, but there’s a not-insignificant chance that 3D printing might be an exception. To be sure, 3D printing will create many jobs: in a world where anyone can make and sell most kinds of items, many people will profit and create new industries. But it’s not sure that these people will be more numerous than all the manufacturing jobs that will be lost.
Now Meet The Players
Who are the companies at the ground floor of this revolution? What sets them apart? What do they have in common?
3D Systems makes many kinds of machines and software, but 3D printers are its biggest market segment. Smartly, it is tackling the customer market as well as the business market.
Autodesk makes all kinds of software used in industrial design, and is a leader in software for 3D printing. Before you can print anything, you need specialised software to design it, and Autodesk does that very well. Before she joined Yahoo, Carol Bartz was famous for leading Autodesk's turnaround while battling cancer.
Another publicly-traded industrial design software company going into 3D printing is Dassault Systemes.
What does über-entrepreneur Bill Gross do when he's not waging war on Twitter or saving the Earth from global warming? The Idealab founder used 3D printing to prototype things for his other companies, saw the potential of 3D printing, and co-founded Desktop Factory with the goal of making sub-$5,000 3D printers. Unfortunately the company didn't make it and its assets were acquired by 3D Systems. Innovation is impossible without failure.
Makerbot is based in New York and makes 'robots that make things.' It's the 3D printing hobbyist's company, and they build a cheap, basic 3D printers starting at $1,299.
Makerbot was founded by Bre Pettis, a man-about-town of the New York entrepreneurial scene.
Shapeways, a spinoff from Dutch conglomerate Philips, lets anyone upload their design to the site and order prints, or set up a store so that other people can buy from them. Think of it as Etsy for things that can be 3D printed. And conveniently, Shapeways has raised funding from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures, also investors in Etsy.
It's hard not to get excited about the potential for 3D printing when you think of its potential impact on prosthetics, and healthcare in general. As prosthetics get better and better, they enable people who need them to lead dramatically improved lives. And it's easy to understand that the customisation that 3D printing affords can make a huge difference here.
Sweet Onion Creations is a great '3D printing 1.0' company: they help with one of the great uses of 3D printing of today, rapid prototyping. They help architectural firms and other companies prototype quickly with 3D printing, which saves them a lot of money, and also sell other services around that.
Freedom of Creation is a design company. They make chairs, lamps, etc. using 3D printing. They're a great example of the kind of companies that are going to flourish as 3D printing becomes more reliable and affordable.
Most design companies create designs for other companies and dream of making and selling their own things, but that's usually a nightmare: handling manufacturing, distribution, marketing, rights, etc. The internet has largely improved the distribution and marketing part. 3D printing promises to do the same for manufacturing.
Contour Crafting wants to 3D print HOUSES. They want to build tractor-trailer-like 3D printers to take on construction sites, use them to build walls and other construction components, and then build your house like a giant lego. It's mostly at the drawing board stage at this point, but it gives you an idea of what the future just might look like.
HP has become practically synonymous with printers, and they're starting to build 3D printers. Good.
And Google has free online software called Sketchup that makes it easy to create designs for 3D printing. Clearly this is an industry they want to be a part of and a story to follow.
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