3D Printing: The Future Is Now By Bevil Wooding
Ever sketched a design idea on paper and wondered what it might look like if it could be brought to life? An earring design, a pendant, perhaps? A sculpture, or special widget? Or even a house plan?
One of the greatest challenges faced by artisans, entrepreneurs and small business operators is turning an idea into a tangible product. Often, the task of moving from concept to a functional prototype can be so difficult, many great ideas simply remain just that – ideas.
The advent of affordable, consumer-friendly, 3D printing technology presents an answer to this universal challenge and offers big opportunities for small businesses. It is an intriguing intersection of design, manufacturing, sports, engineering and technology with implications for sectors as diverse as health, education, home improvement and space exploration.
A Printing Revolution
3D printing is not really that new, it’s just newly affordable. Its popularity was confined to the world of engineering, architecture and manufacturing until the last few years. That all changed with the introduction of relatively low-cost 3D-pirinters, and the wider availability of 3D-printing software, online how-to guides and thousands of practical applications. This convergence has sparked a 3D printing revolution, fuelled by mainstream media interest and growing popularity with consumers and small businesses. Today, 3D printing is one of the most hyped advancements in the technology arena.
Why? 3D printing puts the power of affordable prototyping and short-run manufacturing into everyone’s hands. With one machine and a digital design, 3D printers can build a three-dimensional object of virtually anything right on the spot. It can allow jewelry designers, for example, to go from flat sketch to an exact physical model in just hours.
A relatively sophisticated, 3D printer can cost between $2,500 and $5,000. Cruder models are available for as little as $300-$400. This is giving rise to a growing community – from individual inventors and creative types, to nascent businesses – exploring the potential of 3D printing. They are driving innovation beyond the novelty of uniquely made printed objects.
Now, boutique engineering and manufacturing firms as well as aspiring inventors and innovators can afford to offer clients physical mockups and models of design concepts. Do-it-yourselfers can print replacement parts for common household items such as washers, picture-frames and light-fixtures.
In Sierra Leone, David Sengeh a 27-year-old doctoral student is using 3-D printing and advanced math to create a new kind of artificial limb he believes can significantly improve the lives of amputees in Sierra Leone and across the rest of the world. Earlier this year, NASA announced that it would be sending a test 3D printer to the International Space Station to allow astronauts the ability to print their own spare parts.
Business models are evolving as well. A number of companies are emerging that will enable anyone to upload a design to a website and order and receive their ‘prints’. Companies like Sculpteo and Shapeways take it even further. They help promote and sell products in a 3D marketplace. They will take the orders, print it and send it to interested buyers. You collect the profit from your designs. This opens a world of possibility for creative types who would typically be stymied by the hurdles of traditional manufacturing and sales processes.
These types of innovation create unique opportunities and threats for a broad range of industries. Companies can take advantage of the local 3D printing and use it to create cheaper, more responsive supply chains.
Room for Improvement
For all the hype, there remains several constraints to 3D-printing moving into mainstream consumer applications. Though many things can now be 3D-printed, there are limits. One limitation is size. The size of the object printed is constrained by the size of the printer. Another limitation is the material used for printing. The majority of 3D printers on the market use plastics. The technology is advancing quickly though, to enable more base materials, like metals, and also to enable multi-material printing.
Perhaps the biggest limitation to mass adoption of the technology, however, is ease of use. 3D printing is not yet a simple click-and-print experience for the end-users. You have to know how to level a print bed, fine-tune printing settings, and handle fragile parts and complicated software. The technology still has to get to the point where a user can simply push a button and trust that things will work as they ought to.
Shaping the Future
But things are on the right track and manufacturers as well as entrepreneurs have great incentive to accelerate the pace of 3D printing innovation. Analyst firm Gartner predicts the rate of growth for worldwide shipments of sub-$100,000 3D printers to rise 75% in 2014, fuelling shipments of 98,065 units.
“The 3D printer market has reached its inflection point,” said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner, in a statement. “While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results.”
“As the products rapidly mature, organisations will increasingly exploit 3D printing’s potential in their laboratory, product development and manufacturing operations,” he added. “In the next 18 months, we foresee consumers moving from being curious about the technology to finding reasons to justify purchases as price points, applications and functionality become more attractive.”
There is no doubt 3D printing is here to stay. Today’s early adopters, such as do-it-yourself types, entrepreneurs and hobbyists, will be key to driving wider consumer adoption in the future. For local small business owners, artisans and educators, now is a great time to begin exploring 3D printing to help shape that future.
Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN (www.congresswbn.org), a values-based, international charity and the Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, a technology education non-profit organization. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.