When will 3D printing really take off and be an integral part of manufacturing? Impatient pundits demand instant results. Even stock investors are deliberately short selling 3D printing stock for not “performing” fast enough.
But the problem is not the technology. It’s not the number of sales either. It’s not even material availability. The problem is a knowledge gap. We need more designers to be fluent in additive capabilities as well as subtractive.
I project 3D printing (3DP) / additive manufacturing (AM) will become an accepted integral tool of manufacturing within the next ten years, possibly within five. These future designers are being trained now at universities like Case Western Reserve (CWRU) in Cleveland, Ohio, through its Think[box] program, one of the world’s largest university-based innovation and entrepreneurship centers. Over the next five to ten years, as more students graduate with the experience offered by such centers, then we will see greater use of 3DP/AM technology.
Centers like Think[box] are the crucial education aspect needed to spread the usage of 3DP/AM. Think[box] is the first phase of an ecosystem CWRU plans on building to inspire students in entrepreneurial endeavors. At seven stories, 50,000 square feet, it is one of the world’s largest university-based innovation and entrepreneurship centers, and features a suite of resources to allow users to transform an idea into a market-ready product under one roof. And users do not have to be students. This center is open to the community, including makers and businesses. So far, it has helped launch 20 startup businesses.
Presently, three floors are ready for users. These floors are:
Floor 2, the Wyant Collaboration Floor, supported by James Wyant (CIT ’65), which includes open areas and meeting spaces for interaction.
Floor 3, the Prentke Romich Floor, focused on prototyping, supported by Barry Romich (CIT ’67).
Floor 4, The Lubrizol Foundation and Kent H. Smith & Kelvin Smith Fabrication Floor, which features a machine shop and project space.
Equipment includes 3-D printers ranging from desktop to professional machines, circuit-board routers (including a donation autographed by Steve Wozniak, developer of the Apple 1 personal computer), laser cutters, and a computer-controlled ShopBot router. In addition, the space features other advanced equipment, including a Lynx 3-D Microscope for intricate tasks requiring high-resolution stereo viewing, a 3-D scanner, a mixed signal oscilloscope used in developing electronics and a vacuum chamber for degassing epoxies, mold materials and resins.
Said Case School of Engineering Dean Jeffrey Duerk, “(this facility) is really an ecosystem going from ideation to creation to ultimately, on the upper floors, innovation and entrepreneurship and incubation.”
Think[box] will have expanded prototyping and fabrication areas, in addition to office space for projects that might become businesses. Entrepreneurs will be able to get help writing business plans, filing patents and identifying potential investors and customers.
3D printing has been around for nearly 30 years. It’s not going away. It serves crucial needs in manufacturing, one of which is the cost-efficient manufacturing of custom one-offs. Keep an eye on this industry. In five years, you will be even more amazed at what comes next.