The Shape of Things to Come
The increasing commercialisation of the 3D printing sector and requisite transformation into ‘additive manufacturing’ has been rapid and shows no discernable sign of slowing. In this report, Eric Payne digs into the detail of what 3D printers make possible and what might be achieved in the future.
Digitisation has brought about profound changes in every industry with which it comes into contact – from music to film, television and print. The manufacturing industry is unlikely to be much different as 3D printing tools are increasingly adopted by industry to make consumer products, automobile, medical, dental and aerospace parts.
3D printing or additive manufacturing (as it is known in industry circles) is the process of joining materials to make objects based on 3D model data. Initially used as a rapid prototyping tool, it was later adapted for the manufacture of investment casting patterns and tool cavities. The highly authoritative Wohlers Report 2011, regarded by many as the 3D printer industry ‘Bible’, remarks upon the explosive sales growth of low-cost ‘personal’ systems, rapid development of metal material systems and the increasing demand for 3D printer produced end-use parts. End-use part production is the fastest growing segment of a global marketplace, currently accounting for approximately 25 percent of all 3D printer activity.
New business models
With a compound annual growth rate of around 30 percent in 2011, 3D printers are beginning to be recognised as a serious manufacturing technology. While the mainstream press has focused more on the hobbyist ‘maker’ movement – Chief Executive Officer for 3D Systems, Abe Reichental, famously said: “This is a personal manufacturing revolution” – the biggest long-term commercial opportunities are likely to be in the consumer electronics, medical and aerospace manufacturing sectors.
The industry can be broadly demarcated into three distinct market segments – prototyping, manufacturing and desktop or home use. Each of these has different target applications, prospective consumers and present market leaders. In the region of 45,000 3D printer units have been sold since 1986, when 3D Systems founder, Chuck Hull, first submitted a patent for a system that renders three-dimensional objects via a process of material deposition – layer by layer – which he called ‘sterolithography’.
It is generally estimated that 50 percent of the installed base of 3D printers are used for prototyping purposes. Within the professional prototyping segment – designers, architects and engineers – 3D printers typically retail for somewhere between US$10,000 and US$20,000. The falling price of 3D CAD software in recent years has freed up a lot of additional capital, enabling microbusinesses to invest in new technologies and provide value-added services. “The use of 3D printers to provide engineering insurance and validate designs before committing to manufacture is a prerequisite within design businesses and design departments today,” Dr Phil Reeves, Managing Director for Econolyst Ltd., a UK-based 3D printing/additive manufacturing consultancy, advises.
The fastest growing segment is the desktop or home-use market. Analysts predict that between 25,000 and 35,000 desktop units will be sold in 2012 and more than 200,000 sold in 2013. “That is almost exponential growth,” Dr Reeves informs us. “However, you have to temper that with the fact that those machines are selling for US$1,500; they are very different to the high-end manufacturing platforms that retail for US$700,000.”
The two areas of the high-end additive manufacturing segment that are experiencing steady growth are OEM and ‘service bureau’ services. Service bureau companies were initially established to provide rapid prototyping as a service but are now beginning to offer volume additive manufacturing as a service, providing product designers and artists around the world with an alternative means to bring everything from iPhone covers to toys, dolls, lampshades and furniture to the market. This transition obviously necessitates a whole new skill set in terms of quality assurance, manufacturing process planning and sales capability.
On the OEM side, Siemens Hearing Aids has invested a great deal of money to develop a sophisticated digital business model process supply chain that leverages additive manufacturing technology to provide custom-fit in-ear hearing aids as part of its core internal service. As part of the system, local audiologists take a wax impression of the client’s inner-ear canal, digitise the geometry of the mould using a Siemens 3D laser-scanner and send the file (along with a digital prescription) directly to a receiving centre via the Internet. Once the digital impressive arrives at the receiving centre, the information is fed into a piece of automated software to create a 3D CAD file that is sent to a 3D printer for rendering. The finished shell is then packaged with the appropriate speaker, electronics and battery for shipping back to the audiologist. Dental sector OEMs are starting to establish similar business models for the manufacture and sale of custom-tailored crowns and caps.
A disruptive yet enabling tool
Some commentators see additive manufacturing as part of a suite of manufacturing technologies, including advanced robotics and smarter software, which will see manufacturing jobs returning to the West. Dr Reeves, on the other hand, does not think this is likely because “the technology is equally as accessible and applicable to the developing world”. Equally, it should be recognised that it is not only low labour costs that attract large manufacturing companies to China – some of the companies based in Shenzhen have been making electronic products for more than 30 years. “In 5 to 10 years’ time I do think that we will see additive manufacturing within retail environments and, from a jobs point of view, that is quite interesting because it means that people within the retail sector may need to have some kind of fundamental knowledge of manufacturing,” Dr Reeves notes.
The biggest opportunities are likely to be in developing economies where 3D printer technology promises to have a transformative effect. To this end, Econolyst has helped to establish the 3D4D Challenge, a philanthropic endeavour intended to aid understanding of 3D printer opportunities in the developing world. “The ability to manufacture product in an economy where you cannot buy product is a really exciting prospect,” Dr Reeves remarks. One important area where 3D printers might have a positive impact is in the African agricultural sector. A lot of water is wasted in irrigation because many of the pipes that are used are cobbled together from different systems and have different internal and external diameters as a result. The prospect of farmers being able to print out small interconnectors that fit all of the pieces of pipe together to create a working irrigation system has a tremendous amount of social, economic and health value.
The next evolution of the additive manufacturing industry will hinge upon its ability to exploit new and different materials. Current 3D printing systems can create prototype, semi-finished and finished component parts out of polymers – thermosetting (epoxy) and thermoplastics (ABS, nylon, PP, PMMA, PC, PEI, PPSF, PLA); metals – ferrous (tool steels) and non-ferrous (stainless steel, titanium, aluminium, super nickel alloys); ceramics – gypsum, alumina, silicon carbide; and organics – waxes, cellular materials. This in itself is a massive increase in the range of operational capabilities considered state-of-the-art just two or three years prior, but the industry still has a long way to go before it starts to fulfil its vaunted potential.
“Multimaterial systems are the next big step change we are going to see in additive manufacturing,” Dr Reeves reflects. The last such change was six or seven years ago when the advent of the fibre laser led to the creation of the first 3D printers capable of directly melting metal to make fully dense metal parts. “That opened up massive opportunities for new applications, and multimaterial systems will open up even more economic and business opportunities. The idea of combining insulative and conductive materials is tremendously exciting because it will mean actually embedding intelligence into objects. The printing of optical pathways or circuits puts us on a pathway that will just continue to get more and more complex for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Present 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies are capable of creating single material component parts, but the ability to incorporate additional functionality creates a far more compelling reason to adopt additive manufacturing. Given the layered way in which LCD screens and silicon chips are manufactured – PVD (physical vapour deposition) or lithoscreenprinting – there is every reason to think that additive manufacturing may be compatible with other techniques to embed genuine electronic circuits inside products.
Of course, there are many areas where additive manufacturing cannot yet match the performance of CNC machining, casting or injection moulding in terms of quality and high-series manufacturing. But it is still what Dr Reeves describes as a ‘very disruptive yet enabling tool’, especially in the area of low-volume, high-value and geometrically complex production, democratising manufacturing and allowing even the smallest company or individual to bring a new product to market without the capital investment usually needed to enter the supply chain.
Legislation and liability
The potential size of the global 3D printer market is vast. The industry is currently valued at around US$1.7 billion. However, it is generally accepted that 3D printers only penetrate around eight percent of their possible applications, suggesting that the current industry opportunity might be as much as US$21 billion. With a compound annual growth rate of 26 percent since 1986, the sector could be valued at more than US$100 billion within a decade. “To put this into context,” Dr Reeves informs us, “the global nanotechnology industry will be worth US$30 billion by 2015 and the current global aerospace industry is worth US$380 billion.”
The biggest market, however, is likely to be for the data. The spectre of intellectual property theft therefore looms large, but Dr Reeves believes that 3D printing can learn from the mistakes made by the music, film, television and print industries during their ‘digital transition’. Indeed, he is of the opinion that “we have to completely re-write the rulebook of what we think of as intellectual property.” As part of Econolyst’s consultancy work with a Dutch firm called Freedom of Creation, both parties eventually agreed that the firm could make more money by making its data available in the public domain.
“What you then do is you trade off your brand and your ability to change designs in real time,” Dr Reeves explains. The comparison with music is pertinent because Pirate Bay already has a directory called Physibles, where people can freely share 3D printable data. “Companies will need to learn how to leverage what is a very flexible way of bringing new products to market,” he reflects. “If you design Buzz Lightyear and within six months there are 700 companies in China producing knock-off injection mouldings of Buzz Lightyear, you can either try to shut them down or you can come up with your next product. If bringing your next product to market requires you to make a huge capital investment, you might be discouraged. However, if there is no tooling required and you have easy access to a digital supply chain, you might have to accept a certain element of digital theft and trade on that in order to use it to your best advantage.”
These are the kinds of social, IP and revenue issues that Econolyst is discussing with a whole range of government, industrial and charitable bodies. In a world where digital designs are freely available, it will probably not be possible for manufacturers to maintain the status quo of licensing brands to multiple manufacturers in the Far East for eventual sale in Western shops. That disruption need not undermine market economics, but will require companies to look at alternative ways of brokering intellectual property, generating revenue from the digital data, as opposed to selling a licence to another company to generate revenue from the sale of a tangible product.
“This opens up all sorts of issues in terms of liability, legislation, brand control and brand value, but that is where the maturity of thinking is now heading within the serious users of 3D printing,” Dr Reeves comments. “The floodgates are starting to open and, come hell or high water, no one is going to close them. The technology is just gathering too much momentum.”