The perception of 3D printing in the trough of disillusionment has slowed down it's progress. That was very apparent when I spoke at SXSW last week. Right now, our experiences, on a whole level, with 3D printing have more than likely been one of four things:

1.     A cheap, junky, cheesy, rose that Walmart sold to see if there's market traction on cheap, junky, cheesy 3D printed products.

2.     An online video of a fidget spinner being printed, followed by 25 comments about how so-and-so stole this design.

3.     A school or job fair with a desktop 3D printer gaining all of of the oohs and aahs in the room, and printing an elephant.

4.     A Kickstarter prototype, one off process, either for an acquaintance or yourself as you prepare to ask for funding or to begin testing a product.

And because everyone hasn't had amazing and immersive experiences with 3D printing like I have through my 3D Print podcast WTFFF?!, especially when it comes to big business, the scale and big picture possibilities are lost. The 3D printing we know, and are enamored, yet standoffish with, is not the 3D printing we will know in 5 years. We have talked about this exponential curve, this change that is coming, and that time is finally here.

Why Now? The Two Missing Pieces:

  1. The technological growth + the knowledge to utilize and apply these tools.
  2. Options are becoming less clunky, and way more cost effective.

Technology Review just acknowledged this as well, in their latest breakthrough tech of 2018 article, they zoom in on a piece of the industry we should all be watching closely: metal 3D printing. Sure, the plastic has been fun, and we are only seeing the tip of the FFF iceberg, but when it comes to industry, and especially design, 3D printed metal just jumped on it's fast track to change the world. Is Technology Review Right? Is metal 3D printing a breakthrough tech of 2018? From my expert view, yes and no.

Metal 3D Printing Pros

  • I think that metal 3D printing is under-appreciated especially in consumer markets like jewelry. The capabilities of it was being held back by the processing and new technology is eliminating most of those issues.
  • Businesses don't have to change their entire production model. They can actually enhance their production in a way that they can be more efficient, that they can correct problems.
  • The options to do repairs, to use less material, to add a thin layer of alternate material, to join materials in a much more efficient way, and to have less of an effect on the integrity of the product are options, whether 3D printed or not, any manufacturer would jump on in a heartbeat.

On the flip side of that, there are still concerns I have, when it comes to metal 3D printing, and these are holding markets back from disruption.

Metal 3D Printing Cons

  • Many products made overseas have finishing included: things like polishing, painting, or anodizing. Without a metal printing machine/process that automates this. Right now, in the US, we don't have cheap enough local labor to make this viable. Most metal additive processes require finished machining to clean up the edges or to get to a certain finish. You just have to expect that there will be some post-machining requirements to get the end product you would expect from a more traditional manufacturing process.
  • The technology has never been built from a product standpoint. It was always built from, "This is what the technology can do, now let's figure out what we can make with it." I have, however, recently interviewed people in the 3D print world, like Melanie Lang of FormAlloy, who are taking a more product-centric standpoint, and this switch will support the innovative growth of metal 3D printing.

Future Proofing

When it comes to metal 3D printing, even though the conversation isn't always prevalent, corporations like GE have already been applying this technology for several years. This is part of their future proofing process, and if you haven't started to, at the very least, acknowledge the options, or how this might change your business, you might get left behind. I think we will see rapid disruption and the businesses who don't see it coming and can't compete will filter out. And I'm not just talking about aerospace or car parts.

Start Somewhere, Right Now

This is the time to get an evaluation of all of your processes of business. Not just your prototyping, but your manufacturing process, your competitive future and your product line. Start to get an assessment as to how you can begin today to transition to a future of a 3D printed world because it's happening, and the time is now to find the right-fit for your organization. 

Published on: Mar 23, 2018