Introduction and hype
Is it anyone’s fault if the industry they work for gets overhyped, saddled with huge expectations for immediate profit, consequently overvalued, and then suffers a mini-crash as investors realise it’s not quite the overnight sensation they had hoped for?
Nowhere is there more convincing evidence of a ‘tech bubble’ than in 3D printing, which has not revolutionised every factory on the planet, and nor has it found its way into homes. Investors’ loss of patience has led to declining share prices for 3D printing companies throughout 2015, and staff layoffs.
The reason for the drop in confidence in 3D printing? Expectations were way, way too high, and a market realignment was inevitable, say some. “People expect 3D printing to be the start of some kind of ‘sci-fi’ lifestyle [and] assume that in the future they will be able to 3D print everything in their lives,” says Peter Wallace, Managing Director of Instant Print W1 . Sadly, this really is not the case at all. “Some of the greatest 3D printing jobs have been done by trained professionals and have taken weeks, sometimes months – it’s not as simple as plug it in and play,” adds Wallace.
So is the industry struggling? “A more accurate assessment of the industry might note it to be ‘struggling against lofty expectations’,” says Chris Connery, VP of Global Analysis at Context, who points out that sales of industrial 3D printers are only down by 1% on 2014 while desktop 3D printers for homes are up 56%.
Connery remains bullish on the long-term outlook for the industry, with his company forecasting the entire market – hardware, materials and services – to grow from just under $ 4 billion (around £ 2.6 billion, or AU $ 5.6 billion) in 2014 to $ 15.8 billion (around £ 10.3 billion, or AU $ 22 billion) in five years.
However, it was always going to be difficult for 3D printing to live up to the massive hype. “When 3D printers first hit the headlines, articles were written which led people to believe that they would soon have their own Star Trek-style replicator in their living room, that factories in China would shut en masse and that they need never walk to the shops again, “says Chris Elsworthy, CEO of CEL and creator of the Robox 3D printer, who thinks those scenarios are a long way off.
” We need to be emphasising the amazing things 3D printers are doing today, not what they might be doing in 10 years’ time, “he adds, zeroing-in on the rapid prototyping by startups that 3D printers allow.
Is 3D printing only for making prototypes?
“If you want to quickly create an inexpensive prototype then it is invaluable … this should not demean the technology,” says Wallace, though it’s actually nothing new. “3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has existed since the 1980s and has mainly been used for rapid prototyping,” says Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director of European Automation. “The 3D printing industry is now facing the challenge of expanding into serious production – the industry is at the stage where fully functional products can be printed in a variety of materials, but for the time being, additive manufacturing is a complementary manufacturing tool, meant to be used in combination with more traditional technologies. ”
- How 3D printers work
The future and a cultural shift
What’s next for the 3D printing industry?
Education and proper, un-hyped promotion of the technology’s benefits would not go amiss since there’s a serious lack understanding of what 3D printing actually means.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing mostly uses expensive, advanced plastics and metals, and is just the latest mass manufacturing technique. It has a massive future, just not a particularly exciting one for the average punter.
There are also many different types of 3D printers. “Some of the key technologies are allowing the industry to move beyond prototyping into finished goods production,” says Connery. “This is clearly evident in the metal side of 3D printing where a company such as GE is already using 3D printed parts in its LEAP jet engine, and Boeing has recently announced FAA clearance of a 3D printed part in commercial airplanes.”
The automotive industry has also proven the reliability of 3D printed products. “The thought that 3D printing will only ever be useful for prototyping is outdated,” believes Wilkins, who mentions the FAST project, which sees Constellium, Stelia and CT Ingenierie aim to use 3D printing to produce aerospace structures and parts, including the fuselages.
Complex, customised and on-demand
3D printing is at its most useful where complex, customised and on-demand printing is required, hence its increased use in hearing aids, invisible dental braces, and orthopaedics.
That said, there are so many potential orders to be had from home users that desktop 3D printers are still on the industry’s wish-list. So expect a new focus on putting 3D printers in schools, largely as a back-door into homes, though perhaps that’s too cynical; there is a convincing argument for 3D printing in education.
“3D printers have a huge role to play in education, allowing kids to learn the fundamentals of creation and design, skills this country needs if we’re to stay world leaders in product design,” says Elsworthy.
An immature, uneven and unpredictable market where new entrants make it hard to analyse – something investors get nervous about – 3D printing continues to grow, but in a different way each quarter. “This past period witnessed the largest Kickstarter effort ever with over 16,000 units pre-ordered,” says Connery. “Curiosity is being translated into real product orders.”
Despite the dampened-down talk about 3D printers, some think that we’re on the cusp of a massive cultural shift from consuming to making. “Being someone that wants to make things for themselves has been seen as an odd way of life in the past, but it’s now chic, and soon it will be the norm to make rather than buy,” says Elsworthy. “Our culture is slowly changing and with it households that want assistance in making things that are out of their crafting skillset will adopt this technology to realise their ideas.”
However, 3D printing will not change the way people think and live overnight; this is going to be a slow and steady step-change.
3D printing is not going to be next year’s craze, and nor is it going to replace legacy manufacturing processes. However, its ability to produce short-run, highly personalised products and components – think highly specialised engine parts and artificial limbs – is truly revolutionary.
3D printers may not deserve all the hype they’ve had so far, but ‘open hardware’ and ‘democratised production’ are destined for slow-burn success. “The big market for 3D printing at least for the next five years or so is industry rather than consumer,” says Wilkins.
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