By Leslie Langnau, Managing Editor
Industry experts speak out about what 3D printing needs to continue to grow.
This time around, (as opposed to more than 25 years ago) the 3D printing/additive manufacturing (3DP/AM) industry seems to be on solid footing, establishing itself as a serious and useful tool to the design process. Ancillary products, such as 3D scanners, materials, and even software are undergoing changes that will provide solid support for 3D printing systems and machines.
Even so, change is coming to this industry. So what are some of the challenges manufacturers of 3D printers see coming?
One of the challenges is helping customers justify owning a 3D printer versus outsourcing. One of the common objections brought up is that an engineering team may spend only $8000/year in outsourcing. When you just compare dollar for dollar, no professional 3D printer is available that matches that price point. Noted Bruce Bradshaw, Stratasys Ltd., “If you’re just trying to do the dollar analysis, it’s tough to make the math work.” But comparing dollars spent does not take into account the benefits of improving your design before you go to final prototype, of working out bugs and handling changes more quickly, and getting to market faster. Continued Bradshaw, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.”
Another challenge is that today’s mid and lower priced 3D printing systems were not built for manufacturing. They were built for prototyping. Yet, the idea of using these systems in a manufacturing capacity is a persistent desire among a number of users.
What if today’s manufacturers of 3D printers started from scratch and developed an additive manufacturing platform based on their core technology? Commented Technology Consultant, Todd Grimm, “For the most part, no one has come out with a totally new platform that uses their core technology, that is built from the ground up to be a manufacturing device. We’re a bit locked into the technology platforms that have been established over the years, and we’re looking at incremental change versus an opportunity to go for something really significant. We’re seeing good improvements in these systems ‘under the hood’ that improves quality or throughput. These improvements are not news though, the information is buried in a news release and end users don’t even know that they’re there. But when someone buys a 3D printer, they’re going to be more satisfied with respect to their application and what they’re getting out of the machine. It doesn’t seem like there’s an opportunity to throw more sophisticated hardware at the current configuration to give you a significant pop. So, it probably would behoove the OEMs to start with a fresh sheet of paper and build the thing from the ground up with an eye towards repeatability in terms of quality and throughput.”
As Grimm pointed out in a recent interview, manufacturers are looking for something that you turn on and produce the same part made the day before. This capability is here with 3D printing systems for dental applications. But a 3D printer geared to general manufacturing, “we still need time for it to happen.”
What frustrates OEMs and experts about this industry?
You’ve no doubt heard the refrain, “disrupt manufacturing.” But is that the best use for 3D printing technology, to take what is already working for mass production and replace it with a different technology? Or is there a better choice?
Noted Grimm, “Instead of looking for 3D printing to be a replacement for something that’s already working, again, start with a clean slate.” One area Grimm noted was the number of prototypes ordered during various review stages. “With no expectations and no requirements, examine your design with regard to: how many do we really need in the first year? Second year? Third year? What is the accuracy that we really need? What are the material properties we really need? Can additive manufacturing give us any value or any benefits that other processes can’t?”
Habitual thoughts and processes can take over design choices. In previous prototype projects, for example, an order for 5000 parts may have been the best-cost choice. Today, however, with 3D printing, a quantity of 1 can be the best-cost choice. Once a design is accepted, if you only need 1,000 final products, perhaps 3D printing is the best choice.
On the other hand, is manufacturing taking on a broader meaning? At the recent AMUG conference, some have defined manufacturing as every step, from initial design to the end of life for a product. 3DP won’t replace CNCs, but it can open up manufacturing.
For many professional users of these systems, the onslaught of Kickstarter introductions and the media coverage of all the hobby/maker systems is an issue.
“It is confusing for the target audience of manufacturers,” noted Bradshaw. At the consumer level, hobbyist machines are great machines for just that. The problem is they really can’t be used for something like manufacturing jigs and fixtures. Those parts won’t stand up. It’s tough for audiences to sift through the noise and understand the difference between a professional level 3D printer and a hobbyist machine.”
Grimm sees the issue as how do we meet the incredibly high expectations set by the hype? Will the hobby/maker users reject the technology if it can’t be altered quickly enough to meet their expectations? “Or are they informed enough to say, you know what, if I step up and spend more money, maybe it’s possible. But once you decide that the technology either works for you or not, it’s human nature to move on and take care of other business. You don’t continually re-evaluate all your opinions and decisions.”
Cathy Lewis, vice president at 3D Systems, agreed. “We are in this phenomenal hype cycle, which is affecting a lot of people. Each of us has a responsibility on the education front to keep building the awareness, but in a way that harvests the technology and that makes sense. So instead of worrying about whether you’re going to be able to print your next prescription replacement at home, let’s worry about what you can do. Let’s make sure consumers and business practitioners understand what is possible with 3-D printing, because an awful lot is, so much more then users are doing today. But we need to prevent that hype cycle from taking control of the industry.”
Developers of lower cost 3D printers are realizing the need to invest in better components to improve the output of their units. “Plus, they are realizing that they need better business support mechanisms, better
documentation, and so on, and all of this costs money,” continued Grimm. “Therefore, I think it’s going to force prices up. My prediction is the $5,000 price point is going to be the new battleground and that the less than $1,000 3D printers will not be very attractive. With all that investment required, it’s going to push their prices up.”
Added Lewis, “There are significant barriers to the design of products themselves. It’s a software issue. If you are designing in CAD, you still have to be way too expert. You still have to do way too many steps. You still have to do way too much to protect your design and or share it with others and keep building on it. I think there is a requirement to make the designing component of this much easier, to go either way, into a traditional manufacturing space or to take advantage of 3D printing. The CAD software has a whole generation of improvements it can make that would make designing so much better.”
Where do you see this industry going in the next few years?
“There’s a hidden gem with 3D printing, and that is the ability to be more agile on your manufacturing line by 3D printing jigs and fixtures,” said Bradshaw.
Manufacturing personal educated on the use of 3D printing can ensure that parts are produced quickly and cost effectively, shortening time to market.
“So many organizations have some form of work holding, transport, organizational device need,” agreed Grimm. “I’ve found that in many cases, people will look around their operations and note that they could use something, but instead they must design it, shop it out to a machine shop or to a different tool shop. Well, part of the conversation about the uses for 3D printers is going to be jigs and fixtures because I’ve found users who have saved $30,000 on all the prototyping for the first revision versus shopping it out to a machine shop; $30,000 and in two weeks, numbers like that. That’s significant.
“However, on a shop floor with a high volume operation, you look at the labor and putting that one fixture in that operation can reduce the labor time by seven seconds. Repeat that process ten times a minute over eight hour shifts on five lines, and the average burden rate is $12.75,” continued Grimm.
“The risk in using 3D printing for this application is much less too. You spend a couple of hundred bucks and a couple of hours on your machine. You’re not waiting for the jig from the prototype shop to arrive a week or two later. And then it’s a great opportunity for people to expand their mindset and say, “You know what, where else can we apply this?”
The hobby/maker market will likely have a significant influence on the future design of 3D printers. The users of these systems have quite a list of features and capabilities they want in their printers. Just look at Kickstarter for some of the out-of-the-box thinking those excited about 3D printing are developing. Some of these innovative ideas may wind up in professional systems. Noted Lewis, “when you consider that these hobby/maker systems will expose several hundred million, perhaps several billion people to 3D printing, they will come up with ideas, desires, and wants that will far exceed our wildest dreams and really challenge this industry to deliver them.”
What is needed in this industry for further growth?
According to Grimm, who recently did a quick, general poll of the engineers about whether they use a 3D printer, of those who responded, 60% said they’re not using additive manufacture and 3D printing at all. “So we’ve got plenty of growth opportunity here. It’s just making sure people keep thinking about that and also it’s a mindset thing.”
Grimm continued, saying that he sees strong double-digit (around 20 to 25%) growth continuing for a few more years. “We still have a lot of growth opportunity in our core applications of model making, prototyping, and functional prototype and pattern making.
Bradshaw agreed. “I think it’s going to continue to grow at a rapid pace. I do think you’re going to see some industries changing. I think we’ll see ground swells, like those we see in the dental market, that we haven’t seen before. I don’t know what the next “manufacturing groundswell” will be but I do think we’ll see that and I do think that we’ll see distributed printing as 3D printers take shape in the next few years.
The need for users to have permission to fail comes up often in discussions with industry experts. One of the strengths of 3D printing is that it allows faster iteration of a design, because you can fail more quickly, moving you to the final design that much faster. As Lewis said, “Failure means forward movement. 3-D printing can become a central focal point in almost every company as an innovation plank.”
Despite the hype, solid numbers forecast solid growth for 3D printing
According to Lux Research in a recent report, “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges,” the 3D printing industry will grow to an $8.4 billion market in 2025 – up from $777 million in 2012. Perhaps surprisingly, this growth will not come from consumer applications; industrial uses will generate the most value.
The report cites that two areas are important to growth—materials and printer throughput.
But the Lux research predicts that 3D printable material costs will fall. The actual amount of 3D printable material sold will increase at the same 18% rate as the overall market – from 880 tons in 2012 to 9,700 tons in 2025. However, the total market value for materials will grow at a lower 11% rate – from $142 million in 2012 to $579 million in 2025 – as the entry of new suppliers reduces current markups.
The research group also predicts that small volume production will zoom. While 3D printing is used largely for prototyping today, small-volume manufacturing will boom from a niche market of just $1 million in 2012 to $1.1 billion in 2025, led by aerospace engines and automotive components.
The medical market for 3D printing is already expanding. The market is valued at $11 million in 2012, but should grow to $1.9 billion in 2025.
The research group predicts that the consumer market will remain a niche. Consumer applications attract hobbyists and artists, but despite the hype, 3D-printed consumer goods were only a $17 million market in 2012, led by $10 million from custom jewelry. This market will grow to $894 million in 2025, but remain small relative to industrial uses.