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The Future of 3D Printing


This expansion has been driven by rapid technological developments, falling costs, and new applications for that technology.

The price of most commercial 3D printers usually begins around $15,000 but rises quickly upward.  Obviously, this is out of the average consumer’s price range.  However, a few enterprising startups (in addition to the commercial 3D printer manufacturers) have focused on developing low-cost 3D printers for home use, making this technology more available.  From now until 2016, industry demand and revenue is forecast to surge forward as 3D printers explode in popularity and more customers from a wide array of industries join the 3D printing revolution. 

In 2011, the largest four industry participants collectively controlled less than 35% of industry revenue.  This low concentration reflects the fact that this industry is still in its infancy.  However, according to the Wohlers Report, an annual in-depth study of the advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, estimates 3D printing will grow into a $5.2 billion industry by 2020, up from $1.3 billion in 2010. 

There are three critical factors, which once, and if, they come together, have the potential to revolutionize the entire manufacturing industry, very similar to what occurring in the area of digital printing.  These three factors are: the declining prices of 3D printers, a wider variety of materials that can be printed, and a growing market demand for mass customization of goods. 

Whether or not this technology arrives en-mass in the home, 3D printers have many other promising areas of potential future application.  They may, for example, be used to output spare parts for all manner of products that can’t possibly be stocked as part of the inventory in even the most comprehensive physical store.  Therefore, instead of throwing away broken items, faulty goods would be taken to a local facility that would call up the appropriate spare parts online and simply print them out. 

NASA has already tested a 3D printer on the International Space Station, and recently announced its intention to have a high-resolution 3D printer to produce spacecraft parts during deep space missions. 

The US Army has also experimented with a truck-mounted 3D printer capable of outputting spare tank and other vehicle components on the battlefield. 

3D printers may also be used to make buildings in the future.  To this end, a team at Loughborough University is working on a 3D concrete printing project that could allow large building components to be 3D printed on-site to any design with improved thermal properties. 

Another possible future application is in the use of 3D printers to create replacement organs for the human body.  This is known as bioprinting and is an area of rapid development.     

All this is fascinating, but where is 3D printing headed, you might ask.  All signs show that 3D printing is a growing market and one that will continue to grow.  The main question is whether or not this technology will become one that transforms the traditional manufacturing business while changing market needs and behavior.  Most experts believe it will, but the question is when?  Will it take two years or ten? 

The fact that in the last few years, 3D printing received the spotlight in such mainstream media outlets as the NY Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, the BBC, and many more, points to the fact that in just a few short years we will see more and more industries transformed by this technology. 

This coming revolution can be seen through Google Trends.  The following table shows the trend of looking for the phrase ‘3D printing’ in the last few years. 

 It’s quite clear that the trend is up and not linear.  If you look at the trend line and try to predict the future (ignoring the period before 2006 as it was 0 and predicting 4 years forward), you get the following:

What does all this tell us?  It is important to note that this is only a trend of searches, not any commercial data, but like any upcoming technology, the more popular and mainstream it becomes, the more “real” of a business it is. 

3D printing has the potential to become something with no less impact than the internet, fax, or other breakthrough technologies.  Though there is always the possibility that this technology will forever be locked in the position of “about to become mainstream”, the data supports a much more positive prediction. 

Images Courtesy of the BBC and MakerBot

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