In his State of the Union Address, President Obama echoed a sentiment that has been gaining traction in the industrial and tech sectors: 3D printing is going to reinvigorate American-based manufacturing.
But here's a question no one seems to answer: how?
The 3D printing industry, which has actually been around since the late 1980s, has already produced some exciting advancements. Companies in the space have printed aerospace parts, industrial manufacturing equipment, and even human organs.
The global market for 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is poised to grow to $3 billion by 2018--a 76 percent increase from 2012 revenue figures--according to a study by Global Industry Analysts. But it's not the consumer-facing 3D printing companies, like in-home printer start-up MakerBot, that will prompt this growth.
“It’s really aerospace and the medical industry driving most of this growth,” Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a firm that provides consultation in the 3D printing industry, told Inc.
Think Evolution, Not Revolution
Wohlers explained 3D-printed items cost an average of $4 a cubic inch, which means it’s only cost effective to 3D print commodities that are produced in low volumes with high markups--such as airplane parts or hip replacements. When it comes to everyday items like children’s toys or the casings for TV remotes, mass-scale injection molding in China is still significantly cheaper.
Some large manufacturers use 3D printers to create the actual machinery, like automated factory parts, that manufacture those everyday commodities.
Take Stratasys, the largest manufacturing and vendor of 3D printers worldwide, for example, which sells industrial-level 3D printers that allow manufacturers such as BMW to innovate on the fly. When BMW needs to alter its manufaturing process, it uses its Stratasys printer to print new jigs and fixtures and place them in the mechanics of its production lines.
“Being able to print new components for their factories as fast as they can innovate is already making manufacturing firms incredibly agile,” Bruce Bradshaw, Stratasys' director of marketing, told Inc. “This agility is going to make it much less tempting for companies to outsource to places that don't have people with the expertise to use this type of technology.”
Other companies have applied large-scale 3D printing in niche industries. EOS, a company based in Germany, prints metal items to produce knee and hip replacements. Boeing and Honeywell now produce thousands of 3D-printed aerospace parts for their their assorted defense projects. And scientists have teamed up with companies to use 3D printers loaded stem-cells and hydroxyapatite (a naturally-occuring scafolding that your body can absorb) to produce human organs for the expanding field of biofabrication.
One of Stratasys' subsidiaries can even scan the surviving leg of an amputee wounded in combat while still in field in Afghanistan and have a new, perfectly-fitted 3D-printed prosthetic ready hours later when he's delivered to Germany for surgery.
But of course, most of the buzz surrounding 3D printing comes from a new industry emerging around its consumer-level applications.
Thanks to the prominence of Kickstarter projects such as FORM 1 and successful start-ups like MakerBot and Shapeways, 3D printing has proliferated into the DIY and hobbyist communities and made its way into the general consumer’s lexicon.
"3D printing is freeing access to material objects in the same way that the computer and Internet revolutions has been liberating information for the last 30 years," said Adrian Bowyer, the founder of one of the most popular 3D printing open source platforms, the RepRap project. The open source nature of the market is part of what’s fueling the boom in the consumer-level segment of the industry.
The former professor of mechanical engineering believes that there’s no technological impediment stopping communities in the future from pooling their 3D printer resources to print something like a car, thereby hurling sectors such as the automakers into the piracy crisis that music industry currently faces.
Looking to the Future
But Wohlers and Bradshaw are skeptical about the idea that soon every American home will have a 3D printer that allows them to churn out anything their hearts desire.
“There’s a lot of talk that eventually your mom is going to have a 3D printer in her living room, and I just don’t see that being the case,” Bradshaw said.
He and Wohlers articulate a much more tempered vision of the near future where consumers can download the schematic for a broken engine part or a lost game board piece and have it printed at their local Kinkos.
It’s a trend that has already started: In December of last year, Staples announced that it was going to pair of with 3D printer manufacturer Mcor Technologies to provide 3D printing services in its locations all over the country.
Wohlers says that this may likely create a new business model in the coming years where small companies sell the files for their products online and consumers have their desired purchases printed at the local 3D print shop and delivered to their homes, same-day delivery.
“It won’t be bringing back manufacturing to the U.S. in the traditional sense,” he said. “But it’s going to lead to a whole host of new business models and a different way of thinking when it comes to start-ups.”