Although additive manufacturing has been around for nearly 30 years, it's within the past five to 10 years that it has exploded in popularity among consumer and business applications and been redubbed 3D printing.
Within the past year, 3D printing technology has continued to evolve and catch the interest of some major players as it becomes more versatile and cost-effective. Cost decline will have the biggest impact on how the industry changes, according to a Sculpteo report on the state of 3D printing.
As of 2017, growth of 3D printing for consumers has begun to plateau. Professor Jeff Tagen of Johnson & Wales University's College of Engineering & Design said the industry is in a lull on the consumer side. Ten years ago, new students were shocked at what early fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers could do. Now, Tagen says about 75 percent of the new students he sees have previous experience with 3D printers.
While consumer awareness of 3D printers has risen, and desktop models such as MakerBot have become more affordable, actual interest in owning one at home has been confined to hobbyists, Tagen said. While 3D printers offer interesting potential for households, with many people already printing household tools and parts, they haven't caught on as home appliances.
John Kawola, North American president for 3D printing company Ultimaker, said there was initial excitement over home 3D printers when they first came around that was a little overblown, but that has since died down.
"Saying there would 3D printers in every home would be like saying every home has a sewing machine. Just the people who sew have sewing machines," Kawola said. Likewise, home 3D printers have primarily been purchased by enthusiasts. "There aren't very many killer apps for the regular guy to make stuff."
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While 3D printers haven't broken through on the consumer side, it's an entirely different story for businesses. Investment in 3D printing from businesses has only grown and shows no sign of changing. According to the Sculpteo report, 47 percent of participating businesses saw a greater return of investment over the last year, with an expected 55 percent increase of spending for 3D printing.
"3D printing is showing positive results for companies that use it consistently, delivering an increasing return on investment over the years," the report said. "Respondents expect their investment in 3D printing to strongly increase this year. The market for additive manufacturing is growing, and growing rapidly."
Crafting prototypes with 3D printers has been a major application for a variety of industries. Designers and engineers can make sample products with previously unachievable speeds. Ideas now can go from concept to prototype in a matter of hours instead of weeks and months.
"It's become the expectation nowadays, with businesses expecting faster results thanks to 3D printing," Tagen said. "It doesn't matter how detailed computer designs or schematic are – nothing compares to holding a prototype in your hands."
It's becoming commonplace for even the smaller design firms to have a 3D printer in the office now that the capabilities of 3D printing meet the needs of professional users.
3D printing is also making its way to niche markets thanks to people thinking creatively and stretching the technology.
"It's gone from 'that's neat' to 'what can this do for me and my business?'" Tagen said. "When it comes to specialty applications, we're going to see 3D printing in the oddest places. It's about taking the mindset and applying it to new industries."
Kawola said B2B is dominating the industry thanks to more venture investments in the technology.
"This is a watershed time for the industry. It feels like the tipping point, with lots of big companies and money involved," he said. "Big names are getting involved. HP has entered the market and is making an impact."
Kawola said there's room for consolidation and synergy, since there are many emerging companies out there and the larger companies are getting involved. Outsourcing is also a viable sector of the industry, with service bureaus that print things for clients doing well.
One of the biggest, latest advancements in the technology is metal printing. While the tech is still developing and exponentially more expensive than plastic printing, it's caught the interest of companies wanting to use it for crafting aerospace parts, dental pieces and more. Just as plastic 3D printing has dropped in price, the same is expected for metal printing as the tech evolves.
For that matter, the variety of materials for 3D printing has expanded, allowing for a wide range of applications. Prints can now be hardened and sturdy, malleable, or outright flexible.
Tagen says the best advancements have come from the evolution of the base technology itself. Low-end printers are getting higher in quality, more accurate and more affordable.
"Prices are dropping precipitously," Tagen said. "Imagine going to an auto shop for a car part. Instead of them maybe not having it, they just download a file, pay the license fee and print it for you."
While we can optimistically look forward to a future full of 3D printed products, there are still several hurdles before we get there. According to Kawola, ease of use is still a deciding factor in whether a company invests in a 3D printer. It requires someone on staff who knows what they're doing, and not every organization can afford to educate its staff on working the 3D modeling interface or calibrating the printer itself.
"Everyone wants to just send an email with the design and the machine just prints it, but that's not how it works," Kawola said.
Zach Hagen, owner of Imagine That 3D in Salt Lake City, says education on the technology is needed before it becomes widespread. Part of Hagen's businesses is designing class curriculums on 3D printing for colleges as well as online courses for certification.
Other limits the technology currently faces include cost limits and speed. A single part, whether for a single use or a prototype, takes only a few hours to make; however, if you want to make a million of that part with 3D printing, it's a lot more expensive and time-consuming. So far, the technology has not scaled well with volume and can't outmatch traditional manufacturing techniques for mass production.
The use of 3D printers will continue to penetrate deeper as costs shrink and ease of use expands. If those trends hold true and 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous, then it may eventually make sense to introduce it for manufacturing applications.
"The cost and speed will get to a point where it makes sense for larger volumes, once it becomes cost-effective," Kawola said.
So many industries are experimenting with 3D printing, introducing exciting concepts such as 3D printed homes, food, drones and even space colonies. As children are introduced to the technology and grow up learning about it and improving it, the next generations will be doing astounding things with 3D printing.