This is a guest post in our series looking at the future of 3D Printing. To celebrate 5 years of reporting on the 3D printing industry, we’ve invited industry leaders and 3D printing experts to give us their perspective on the next 5 years of 3D printing.

Professor Joshua Pearce (@ProfPearce) is cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University and is the editor-in-chief of HardwareX, a journal dedicated to open source scientific hardware.

3-D Printing for the People by Professor Joshua Pearce

3-D printing should have been here 20 years ago. If my generation had had access to 3-D printers in high school, we would be technical wizards by now. Unfortunately, 3-D printing was locked away by patents, which effectively limited access to rapid prototyping to large corporate R&D centers. I am sure the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in those early machines paid dividends, but they barely scratched the surface of the potential of additive manufacturing. As readers of 3-D Printing Industry know, we are finally starting to see the potential now.

Fostering innovation

Although 3-D printing is actually old technology, it did not really start to take off until the open source RepRap (self replicating rapid prototyper) 3-D printer was created in the wake of the expiration of patents on fused filament printing. The open source ethos led to an explosion of innovation and drove a precipitous drop in 3-D printer prices. This made it clear if we want to really foster innovation, “intellectual property” law needs to be significantly weakened or maybe completely discarded as an antiquated theory. The $20,000 unreliable refrigerator sized 3-D printer of yesteryear was replaced by a technically superior product (faster print speeds, more materials, higher reliability, etc.) that could fit on your desk for about $2,000.

The first RepRap. All of the plastic parts for the machine on the right were produced by the machine on the left. Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) are members of the RepRap project.

The first RepRap. All of the plastic parts for the machine on the right were produced by the machine on the left. Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) are members of the RepRap project.

Enter the hype cycle. News organizations fumbled press releases leading to confusion about 3-D printing in the public mind. “Why can’t my desktop printer print a beating heart? Or a space rocket? Or a cup of Earl Grey tea in 10 seconds? TV and Facebook just told me 3-D printers could do that now!” Such unrealistic expectations and the resultant disappointment with low-resolution plastic knick-knacks dampened the enthusiasm of some consumers for 3-D printing.

A new era of distributed manufacturing?

Now that the hype has relented a bit, it is time to take another close look at the potential for having 3-D printers in every home, ushering in a new era of truly “distributed manufacturing” –  individuals fabricating custom products for themselves in their own homes from free and open source digital plans.

As a researcher, I have had an inside track on the way economics is going with 3-D printing. Nearly all scientific equipment is horrendously overpriced. The scientific community has demonstrated many times that using a combination of open source lab techniques and 3-D printing, the costs of scientific equipment can be cut by 90-99%.

A 3-D printable open source sample rotator that cuts over 90% of the cost of a commercial versions of the same scientific equipment recently published in HardwareX, a new open source scientific hardware journal (photo:J Pearce, GNU FDL).

A 3-D printable open source sample rotator that cuts over 90% of the cost of a commercial versions of the same scientific equipment recently published in HardwareX, a new open source scientific hardware journal (photo:J Pearce, GNU FDL).

Economics in favor of home production

Several years ago, we were curious to know if the same economic savings could be had by normal consumers. We found that the economics is clearly in favor of home production of products with 3-D printers. Critics pointed out that we were all engineers using self-built RepRap systems, something that most American consumers probably could not do. In response to this, we completed another study using a fully-assembled plug-and-play Lulzbot Mini.

It serves as a representative model for the potential future of 3-D printing in the average American household by employing a printer operator who was relatively unfamiliar with 3-D printing and free 3-D design files of common items normally purchased by the average consumer. Items were printed using self bed leveling, default printer settings and premade designs. A cost analysis was performed through comparison to commercially available products (low and high price range).

When compared to the low cost items, investment in a 3-D printer represented a return of investment of over 100% in five years. The simple payback time for the high-cost comparison was less than 6 months, and produced a 986% return! Thus, current fully-assembled commercial open source 3-D printers appear to be highly profitable investments for American consumers.

Michigan Tech student with several open source Lulzbot Mini RepRap derived 3-D printers (photo: J Pearce, GNU FDL).

Michigan Tech student with several open source Lulzbot Mini RepRap derived 3-D printers (photo: J Pearce, GNU FDL).

Skeptics can counter, “sure this is possible, but is anyone actually doing it?” The answer appears to be an emphatic “yes!

Just as a preliminary gauge to the effect that widespread use of 3-D printing might have on the economy, we calculated the savings on the same items we printed for the study based on download rates from open repositories. For just the random 26 free designs we selected, home printers have already saved over $4 million by substituting for purchases.

This is only the savings from 26 items out of millions of free and open source 3-D printable designs! It also uses commercial plastic (~$24.00/kg) instead of much less expensive recycled plastic from recyclebots ($0.10/kg). The potential trend was backed up by a lively discussion on Hack-a-Day, where most commentators were saving considerable money with their 3-D printers.

Michigan Tech graduate student adjusts a prototype vertical recyclebot used to turn waste plastic into 3-D printing filament. (Photo: S. Zhan, CC BY SA)

Michigan Tech graduate student adjusts a prototype vertical recyclebot used to turn waste plastic into 3-D printing filament. (Photo: S. Zhan, CC BY SA)

The 3D printing industry is changing

It is clear the nature of the 3-D printing industry is changing. In the next five years, the cost of fused filament  3-D printers will continue to decline (e.g. this month’s new kits are $99!) and the market will continue to expand into the homes of consumers.  

We will continue the global transition away from the combination of de facto forced employment and passive consumerism to a global sharing community of creative makers. Such a transition has only just started, but is clearly possible, as the number of free and open source designs continues to climb, and the class of open source 3-D printers continues to gain in sophistication, ease of use and materials selection. These 3-D printing technological developments enable the possibility for everyone to live rich, full and relatively equitable lives, by printing physical goods for the cost of materials and electricity, while minimizing our impact on the environment.

The future is bright for 3-D printing!

Michigan Tech students celebrate a massive delta-style 3-D printer build as part of a class on Open Source 3-D Printing. (Photo. S. Bird/MTU, CCBYSA).

Michigan Tech students celebrate a massive delta-style 3-D printer build as part of a class on Open Source 3-D Printing. (Photo. S. Bird/MTU, CCBYSA).

Author mini-bio:  Professor Joshua Pearce (@ProfPearce) is cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction.  He is the editor-in-chief of HardwareX, a journal dedicated to open source scientific hardware and his is the author of the Open-Source Lab:How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

This is a guest post in our series looking at the future of 3D Printing, if you’d like to participate in this series then contact us for more information. For more insights into the 3D printing industry, sign up to our newsletter and follow our active social media channels.

Don’t forget that you can vote now in the 1st annual 3D Printing Industry Awards, where Dr. Adrian Bowyer will receive an award for his outstanding contribution to 3D Printing

Featured image show Prof. Joshua Pearce fixing a RepRap 3D printer.

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