A couple of years ago circa 2012, 3D printing was seen as the next big thing. On Gartner´s curve of hype, 3D printing was essentially red hot promising the 4th industrial revolution. The potential was unlimited with new startups appearing in the space almost every week. Since then, 3D printing has cooled. Many startups or even traditional 3D print companies such as 3D systems that expanded very fast in this time later spent their time writing down the value of their acquisitions, laying off employees or simply shutting down brands that they had bought because the market cooled.
To understand this better, let´s travel back in time to 2011 Back then, this was a few years after some of the original 3D printing patents started to expire. This meant that many startups were formed and took advantage of the expired patents to create their own 3D printers with many based around the open source movement. Suddenly desktop 3D printers that could cost thousands of dollars were available for $2000 or less. This led to many people and also small companies buying their first 3D printer. This was typically an FFF machine which would be used by a customer for producing basic parts out of plastic. The overall concept that you could have your own 3D printer at home and print almost whatever you wanted created enormous hype as this was the first time in more than 200 years that a parts production process was being moved from the factory back into the home. This concept is very profound so from a 10,000 feet view it’s easy to see why there was so much hype back in 2011 around 3D printing.
Today, 3D printing appears to be more of an evolution than a revolution. It is slowly but surely gaining a foothold within companies that are making not just prototypes but now full production parts. Why did the revolution promised a few years ago not materialise? There are a number of reasons so let´s look at each one in turn.
- The printer itself – 3D printers are more complex to use than desktop computers. They can have issues by getting clogged or parts may break and each 3D printer has different parameters which if you want to get the best out of your machine you also need to know how to configure it correctly. If the machine breaks, it can be difficult to get good technical support (desktop 3D printers being a case in point as a 3D printer created by a startup and sold cheaply may have no technical support options!). Desktop 3D printers were fairly cheap but the commercial 3D printers were complex and expensive. Typically, you would need a formal training course just to understand how to use it and still need a costly maintenance contract as you would not have the knowledge to be able to maintain it yourself.
- Build quality – once you understand how to use a 3D printer, the next challenge is getting a part to print correctly. Even for established brands, this can be a case of trial and error. There are so many different parameters such as if you need to use part supports, temperature, humidity, porosity, part orientation when printing that mean that you can have many different things to take into account. Often, due to these and other parameters, a part can fail midway through the printing process meaning that the part is useless. Of course, all of the time and cost that has been spent in producing a failed part is also wasted.
- Materials – an FFF desktop printer may be fairly cheap when it comes to materials but the commercial machines have specific materials. Many of these materials took lots of investment and time to develop (often by the 3D printer companies themselves) so the 3D printer companies often tell you to use their own materials otherwise you may void the warranty on your machine. In addition to this, they also maintain a healthy margin on the materials themselves.
- Software – there is a vast array of software available today that can produce basic parts. The problem is that more complex designs (including those parts with a ¨wow!¨ factor when 3D printed), require more professional 3D design software to be used. This can be software such as Solidworks or Rhino with Grasshopper. All of these software packages are expensive with a single user licence costing from around $1200 upwards. To use these packages requires a lot of training and experience. Basic training on these packages will be typically 40 hours upwards but typically it may take months or years to be able to produce professional looking parts optimized for 3D printing.
All of these are key factors as to why 3D printing was not able to undertake the revolution promised 5-10 years ago. In order for 3D printing to become more mainstream each one of these areas needs to be improved. If one area is improved, the other areas need to follow otherwise 3D printing as a whole will not fulfill its potential. Indeed today, the cost of producing many parts is still cost prohibitive, which is why many parts are still produced in a traditional way. In order for it to even make economic sense to print a part via 3D printing, normally the part needs to be re-designed for 3D printing to reduce the weight &/or part complexity. The industry and leading players recognize the challenges listed above and are taking steps in the commercial space to work with their customers to educate them about where 3D printing can make business sense. This is important to get beyond the hype and focus on where 3D printing can benefit business and society as a whole. The next few years promise to continue the evolution path as the challenges with 3D printing mean that for some years to come we will see an evolution rather than a revolution. Maybe 4D printing will change this but that is for another post!