More than 1,500 business leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts attended the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City this week. The jam packed event was a 48 hour review of how the technology has developed over the last few years, and discussion of where it might be headed in the future. Hod Lipson, one of the event’s lead organizers and the author of Fabricated, opened the proceedings with an ambitious question, “How will 3D printing change our lives?” A who’s who of industry leaders was on hand to answer this question, including Avi Reichental of 3D Systems, Bre Pettis of Makerbot and Peter Weijmarshausen of Shapeways. While there was no clear answer, several themes emerged throughout the course of the event that are worth noting.
3D Printing Has Unique Advantages
As a manufacturing technology, 3D printing has unique advantages over its subtractive counterparts. One advantage that was praised time and again throughout the keynotes and sessions was its ability to handle complexity with low cost. 3D Systems’ CEO Avi Reichental reinforced this idea by calling this, “the greatest gift of 3D printing.” In his opening speech, he showcased several examples of how this works in industry, the most striking of which came from the Invisalign Company, which makes a conspicuous alternative to traditional braces. All of the company’s alignment systems are made using 3D Systems printers and each pair must be manufactured to fit an individual’s teeth. This type of custom complexity would be impossible with traditional manufacturing techniques.
Shapeways’ CEO Peter Weijmarshausen spoke about the ability of 3D printing to make consumers a part of the creative process by lowering the cost of customization. “What is missing [in the market],” he said, “is personal input into the products we buy.” Shapeways, a market leader in cloud printing services, is largely devoted to enabling this input. Some of their customers create products and sell them in online stores. Others are able to customize existing creations through services like The Vibe, which provides custom iPhone cases. As 3D printing does not require the use of expensive moulds, the cost of printing one unique thing is not onerous. The investment community believes that Shapeways is on to something. They announced a $30M round of investment during the event, led by powerhouse investment firm Andreessen Horowitz.
(Most of) The Money is Being Made in Industry
Personal 3D printers continue to captivate the imagination of the public, and that interest is growing. According to industry analyst Terry Wohlers, a paltry 1,600 news articles were written about 3D printing in 2011, while 16,000 were written in 2012. While most of these column inches are devoted to personal 3d printing, the vast majority of the money is being made in industry.
Traditionally, 3D printing has been used to help businesses rapidly prototype products. This still dominates industrial activity with the technology but recent advancements in speed, materials and quality have also enabled the technology to play an increasing role in production. Additive manufacturing works best when the object being made is complex, and the production runs are relatively small (see above). This well suits the medical and aerospace industries, which are clear beneficiaries of the technology and invest in it heavily. Examples of the influence of 3D printing were frequent throughout conference sessions. Wohlers’ firm, for example, tracks the number of dental copings (a key component in a crown) produced using additive manufacturing. A staggering 16,000 per day are now manufactured using DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) technology. Brett Lyons, of aerospace juggernaut Boeing, revealed that his company uses more than 200 3D printed part numbers on its airplanes. Despite the persistent critique that the technology doesn’t scale as well as other forms of manufacturing, businesses are capitalizing on its advantages to create value.
Though the consumer 3D printing market is still small in terms of dollars, its growth is impressive. Wohlers’ firm also tracks the number of personal 3D printers (priced at $5000 or less) sold each year. More than 23,000 printers were sold in 2011, a number nearly 400% larger than the year prior. Though final numbers were not available for 2012, the sales increase is expected to be significant.
Our Creative Tools Need Work
Matt Griffin, Director of Community Support at Adafruit, shared an interesting discovery he made during his research for a new book on 3D modeling. Though there is a lot of talk about the ability of 3D printing to help us “print our dreams”, he said, there are relatively “few people designing their dreams right now.” Prominent on the wish list of many conference speakers was a better set of tools for 3D model creation. “Better” generally meant easier to use and designed specifically to support 3D printing. This need is even more pronounced with the recent announcement that TinkerCAD, a popular entry-level 3D design program, would soon cease to exist.
Many companies are working to fill the void. Autodesk’s 123D program, for example, already has nearly 120M downloads, according to Wohlers. Modeling programs like Sketchup, OpenSCAD and even 3D Tin have developed a following. But there is more work to be done before people can fully take part in the creative process. For now, Griffin revealed, “there is a gap between the things that [printer users] … are responding to and the skills they have.” They generally look for a good solution on Thingiverse, or hack around in one of the above programs until they produce a passable solution.
A close relative to 3D modeling is 3D scanning, and many conference attendees voiced a desire to see improved scanning hardware. Like 3D modeling, there are many projects and developments, but no single solution has prevailed.
The Future is Tough to Predict
Most speakers expect continued growth in the 3D printing industry overall, which has enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 26.4%. Leading this growth is likely to be the medical industry, which is considered the “fastest growth vertical” by companies like 3D Systems. The personal 3D printing market, however, had the most question marks. In order for broad consumer adoption to occur, several key problems still need to be addressed. Chief amongst these is the ease of use and reliability of the printers themselves, and the lack of accessible tools for the creation of 3D content.
No speaker, panel, or discussion was able to definitively answer Mr. Lipson’s opening question, but the conference was able to show that 3D printing is starting to have an effect on our lives. Taking advantage of its unique ability to deliver complexity at low cost, new medical techniques are delivering solutions suited to the individual. The cars that we drive and the planes that we ride in have parts that were either prototyped or manufactured using an additive manufacturing process. And many people have begun to take part in the process of making, either by printing out an idea they have on an affordable home printer or using a cloud printing service to do so.
To support the further exploration of these topics, organizers have promised an Inside 3D Printing World Tour, hosted in at least four new cities. More information about their plans for the events can be found here.