This article is sponsored by SAP.
As of right now, 3D printing remains a bit of a novelty. Sure, you can design your own shoes, pretend you’re on “Star Trek,” or dream up a three-wheel hybrid car, but 3D printing’s practical implications for business have yet to capture the public imagination.
When will 3D printing start fundamentally changing the business landscape—or are we there already? We talked to Jochen Rode, who heads the digital manufacturing program of SAP‘s research department in Dresden, Germany, about which industries this new technology affects most, as well as how long it will be before doctors start printing out our organs.
Interview conducted by Business Insider’s Patricia Chui. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Could you give us an overview of what 3D technology is and does?
JOCHEN RODE: The way I usually explain it is that [the] product is built up layer by layer. By adding different materials—it might be plastic or it might be something else, it might be metal—[and] adding layer by layer on top, you can actually grow real, 3D products … Anything that’s imaginable can be 3D-printed, often a lot of things that you cannot manufacture any other way. It’s limitless what you can do.
The sweet spot for 3D printing is one-off prototypes or even small-series [production]. You can have a custom-made implant—for instance, if you want to have a new tooth. You have a toothache, and you get an inlay for your tooth. No other human being on Earth will have the tooth that you have. It can be done very well with 3D printing technology. It’s done already today.
BI: Are you starting to see the industry grow beyond hobbyists and into the business world? Is that happening now, or is it something that’s going to happen in the future?
Photo: Jochen Rode
JR: Well, both. If you look at the 3D printing market, roughly 70 per cent is still what we call rapid prototyping. Most of it is still some designer setting a 3D printer on their desk and printing something out as a mockup for a future product. The other 30 per cent is growing. Some people say it’s 40 per cent. It’s really used for small-series production of specialised parts. One big application area that [exists] already today is tool manufacturing, for instance, special tools for injection moulding.
Health care is a big one … They have done some facial implants for broken bones. They can now [make] bones that are just as stable as a real bone, but lighter. But there’s a lot of room to grow. There are research teams looking into printing human organs, like a liver, for example. That can actually be done in the lab today. Of course it has to be done in a repeatable way, in a safe way. And you’re probably looking at another 10 years until growing organs is really ready for prime time, and you’ve got another 10 years until it’s approved.
There are teams printing food. A team has managed to print a steak. They ate it and they say it didn’t taste so bad.
Another area is very specialised parts for the machine-building industry, where it does not make much sense to invest a lot for special tools. If you need some sort of bracket or angle, you just print it 20 times. It’s a lot cheaper than purchasing it any other way. We see this applied in the aerospace and defence industries when manufacturing a small number of products, like 100 planes of one series.
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BI: Will 3D printing ever expand to cover larger numbers than we’re talking about now?
JR: For 3D printing, it always costs the same. It doesn’t matter if you do 100 items or if you do one of them; the price per item is always the same. And therefore, if you want to use it, you’d better apply it to some areas where you want to do something special for a customer.
I recently talked to a big manufacturer of robotic equipment and robotic grippers. Every time they talk with a client, they have different requirements. One customer wants a gripper for big objects, one for small objects, a third one for small but round objects. So they always have to change their design somewhat. And that’s really a sweet spot for 3D printing, if you need to do something different all the time. The payment scale will stay the same. [Printing] will of course get cheaper and faster, no question about it. Every year we are looking into faster devices.
BI: Will larger businesses start incorporating their own 3D printing divisions, or do you see more of a market for companies like Shapeways that specialize in 3D printing for other companies?
JR: Today it’s both. All of the big companies have [had] 3D printers for many years. As it turns out, most of them don’t have the whole bandwidth of different printers. Not everybody, not even a big company, can afford to have all the technology [in-house]. … Any big automotive company, they’re going to have three, four, five machines in-house, and whenever they need something that goes beyond their capacity … [they use] service bureaus that print on demand, that [have been] around a lot longer than Shapeways, Sculpteo, or i.Materialise.
You have a lot of small companies that have maybe 20 printers that specialize in metal or plastic printing. And they will do anything for you. BI: There has been controversy lately about 3D-printing a gun, which has brought up the topic of regulation. Do you see the industry ever being regulated, and would that affect businesses?
JR: That’s an interesting question. You may be able to regulate, but it’s still hard to prevent what’s been happening there.
What 3D printing brings about is the whole issue of IP management. Because given a 3D drawing and the right printer, you can replicate anything. And that’s an opportunity for all makers. If you look at websites like Thingiverse, as a designer, you would put up a design of, let’s say an iPhone case, and somebody else comes along and they take the design, they change it, and they put it back online. That’s the open-source movement and it works great.
But then, of course, you see other companies that are producing parts, and it’s their parts, and they don’t really put their 3D drawings out there for anybody to print because maybe it’s part of their business model, to charge per spare part. So they may charge you for the usage of a 3D drawing. They will send you the 3D drawing and they will only allow you to print it once and there may be some DRM, or Digital Rights Management, technology that makes sure that your printer only prints that thing once. So you will see a lot of that from companies, like you see in the music industry today or the games industry.
Hopefully the gun companies will not just put all their drawings in the wild and allow everybody to do it.
BI: Do you have your own 3D printer at home? What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve made for yourself?
JR: We have a printer here at work, of course. And I guess the most interesting thing that I did recently was for my nephew—he has a toy train and the train has some wooden tracks. And there was a piece missing. So I just designed something quickly in Google SketchUp and I pressed the button and got a spare part coded for him, which otherwise you may not get at all, or [may] look for for a long time.
There was a broken plastic part in my dishwasher. And yes, you can buy the plastic part, but you buy it with 20 other plastic parts that you don’t need, for a lot of money. So a colleague just redesigned it for me. And now it’s part of my dishwasher.
Jochen Rode is the head of the digital manufacturing program in the SAP research department.
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