In 1982, a young Terry Wohlers completed graduate school at Colorado State University. By 1986, he started what would become one of the most significant consultancies in the world of additive manufacturing. Less than a year later, the enterprising young Wohlers, having specialised in CAD/CAM, contacted 3D Systems, the first company to commercialize 3D printing technology. From his early contact with this company, Wohlers received a 3D printed car part, and a VHS video tape of the manufacturing process. This was his ‘wow!’ moment.
A relatively short time later, Wohlers moved into the position of a consultant with a large manufacturers of hearing aids that wanted to explore the possibility of producing custom in-the-ear hearing aid shells using 3D scanning, special software and 3D printing.. The expertise that he developed over this time framed the basis for the continuing development of Wohlers Associates and staked the basis for the company it is today.
The VHS tape alone is an indication of how long 3D printing has been around, and equally an indicator of the length of time that Wohlers has been in the field. Wohlers was the opening keynote speaker at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in Melbourne: a talk which was a broad survey of changes in the 3D printing industry over the past year.
Wohlers’ keynote address shared the latest insights from Wohlers Report 2015, 20th anniversary edition of the report.
According to Wohlers, in the last 5 years, the additive manufacturing industry has quadrupled in value, and a US$4.1 billion dollar industry, including services and products, in 2014. Both the consumers and industrial customers have contributed to the continued growth in unique ways: nearly 92% of printers sold are desktop (under $5,000) machines, and about 87% of the sale revenues come from industrial machines . Consumers are being introduced to the basic home-based possibilities of additive manufacturing as the technology continues to become more industrially capable and widely used for commercial purposes.
New uses of additive manufacturing are being enabled, not just by advances in materials and resolution, which continue to improve, but also by modes of production that better fit to established and emerging needs. For instance, additive manufacturing control platforms for the printers themselves are allowing manufacturers to offer feedback to their printers as they print. These same process control modules are also recording detailed manufacturing data that gives medical and aerospace customers insight into the parts they are producing.
Wohlers sees new entrants that are already established in other markets, enabling both new innovation and sustained pedigree to the industry. One example that Wohlers raised was that HP is producing a Multi Jet Fusion system under the leadership of Dion Weisler. This technology offers voxel-level control, including texture, elasticity, translucency, colour, and even thermal and electrical conductivity. This is work is being brought to market by one of the original presences in Silicon Valley: we’re well beyond Kickstarter here.
Outside the machines themselves, Wohlers suggested that a growing 3DP ecosystem, from robotics to design to reconfiguring supply chains, offers a coming reorganisation of manufacturing firms as well as other connected industries. This does not necessarily mean that every desktop will have a printer on it. Having experts tweak designs and ensure high quality prints for their offsite customers allows the best hardware and software to produce the best results, while opening new business models for both consumers and industrial processes through additive manufacturing.
In the interview, Wohlers had a few specific pointers to discuss. While his talk was on the ‘new frontiers’ of 3D printing, discussing new barriers is equally important. Aerospace, dentistry, and medicine are, according to Wohlers, the ‘low hanging fruit’ for the manufacture of end-use parts using 3D printing, so that’s why we’re seeing so much news and research coming out of these fields. He also discussed Australia and 3D printing supply chain issues – what are the risks and opportunities associated with the Australian context? For Wohlers, the relatively low number of customers that are geographically local to Australia is perhaps a challenge for Australian businesses, and the shipping costs for customers outside of Australia are a consideration.
In terms of things less financial, Wohlers also spoke to us about education, specifications, and legal issues for 3D printing. One of the concerns he raised was that 3D printing education has a fair way to go in terms of how people understand its operation. One of the problems that he has noticed both in the press – and at conferences – is that people tend to ‘fill in the gaps’ in their own knowledge with assumptions rather than research or fact. This is a problem for industry, consumers, educational institutions, and government.
The Wohlers Report 2015 is now in its 20th edition and available for purchase at 3D Printing Industry’s Report Portal.