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3D Printing is big. And it’s getting bigger. The last 12 months has seen unprecedented levels of coverage for all things 3D — from movies to TVs, from games consoles to workstations.
When TCT published its guide to 3D printing last year, the feature started with the following definition, which had recently been rubber- stamped by the ASTM: 3D Printing (n) — fabrication of objects through deposition of a material by print head, nozzle, or any other printing technology. Term often used synonymously with additive manufacturing; in particular associated with machines that are low-end in either price or overall capability.
As often happens, in search of a clarification the result serves simply to highlight the exceptions!
While writing last year’s overview it was noted that although necessary, definitions were difficult to pin down in this arena — growth is fast, new developments muddy the waters and the mainstream media will never let a definition get in the way of a good story. And so it has come to pass that in the last twelve months more than ever, 3D Printing has grown to represent everything additive in the minds of the general public.
Users of Twitter, LinkedIn and the blogosphere will have no doubt seen one or more of the ‘friendly discussions’ about the naming conventions we should apply. They may also have seen one or more not so friendly exchanges. For the average user these arguments will seem trivial — who cares what anyone calls it so long as we all understand what we’re talking about! Right?!
Maybe. It would be remiss of anyone to assume that they had the right to dictate to the masses (or the mass media). It is, for the most part, out of the hands of the concerned minority and into the realm of the majority, and the majority will make up their own minds. However, this doesn’t preclude users from sticking to the terminology they feel best suits their needs, nor to the suppliers who choose to market their wares in whichever way best suits their message.
In terms of this feature 3D Printing does not mean everything AM, merely a subset of applications of these technologies, for it is use that defines a process rather than the process itself.
The TCT definition of 3D printing concentrates around price, ability and application. An SLM machine used by a consumer-facing bureau (Shapeways et al) is marketed as 3D printing, and quite rightly. Selling it to the mass market as anything else would be commercial suicide considering the building wave of 3D Printing news.
The 3DP Matrix on the slideshow gives an overview of the current offerings in this area. There are only a handful of changes since the last matrix in terms of the companies themselves, but a significant number of developments within the existing line up of machines, materials and capabilities. At the time of writing it is not fully known what has become of Solido3D, the Israeli manufacturer of the LOM- based SD300 Pro machine.
A new manufacturer, BluePrinter ApS from Denmark, has made itself known through some local media and a single-page website (www.blueprinter.dk). At the time of writing BluePrinter CEO, Lars Melvin Scharf, explained that the company was working hard towards a late-2011 launch for their Selective Heat Sintering (SHS) machine. The company claims that: “The proprietary SHS technology produces high grade 3D prints similar to SLS but in a more robust, simple and affordable way.” No further details are available at this time, but the appearance of a new company, with a reported new technology is certainly an exciting development for the industry.
Indeed it is surprising that given the recent surge in interest in 3D printing that there aren’t more startups breaking through. Perhaps the biggest news the industry received was the introduction of Hewlett Packard — a globally known consumer electronics giant, as far from a startup as one could imagine — entering the sector with the DesignJet series of printers. Little information has been forthcoming from with HP or the manufacturer of the DesignJet, Stratasys, since the initial fanfare.
The biggest problem for manufacturers of the higher-end of the low-end machines is that they sit a little uncomfortably in the landscape. They’re not cheap enough to appeal to home users and hobbyists, but neither are they generally sufficiently adaptable to appeal to every design house or engineering office. Increasing competition from quick-turnaround service providers, print-on-demand directly from CAD combined with the number of different processes available, means that the outlay for an in-house machine must be carefully considered against constantly shifting criteria.
If you have the money then you can have full colour, fine details, materials that mimic end-use properties, low-cost and ease of use. Just not in the same system.
In case you missed any of it, here is some of the most pertinent ‘mainstream’ coverage of 3D Printing in the last 12 months, highlighting both the confusion about what it is, and the enthusiasm about it regardless!
The Economist mytct.co/ordyQ7:
The big one, the front page! With the headline ‘Print me a Stradivarius’ this feature from February opened the floodgates that haven’t been shut since. With dozens of examples of 3D printed objects, made on a number of platforms, the article highlights the possibility that 3D printing will usher in a new industrial revolution — much like the Internet did for the ideas economy. As a ‘devirtualisation’ technology, 3D printing will allow not only the global spread of intangible ideas, but the spread of physical objects at a rate and ease never before seen. The article starts in Filton, just outside Bristol, home to EADS. Which brings us neatly onto...
That BBC Breakfast Story mytct.co/n24zwG: Infamous within the community, viewers were treated to a special report on 3D printing with help from EADS in Filton. The story revolved around the fact that engineers in Bristol had: “come up with a new material that could revolutionise the way we manutacture goods — a form of nylon as strong as steel.” Off to a shaky start then. But nowhere near as shaky as the actual riding of a 3D printed bike (http://mytct.co/slsbike to see for yourself). Despite the glaring technical inaccuracies, cringeworthy cycling attempts and widespread criticism across the industry, this piece certainly stoked the flames of interest surrounding 3D printing. Many of the viewers of the original broadcast had presumably never heard of the technology before, which is perhaps why so many people believed more could have been done with the opportunity.
CNBC mytct.co/oPNgA6: In May of this year 3D Systems transferred from the NASDAQ to begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The coverage from the business press was impressive, and CEO Abe Reichental had ample opportunities to promote not only 3D Systems, but 3D printing in general. This coverage would have been viewed by a more narrow community than the BBC Breakfast story, but would be important in educating potential investors and entrepreneurs to the abilities of 3D printing.
BBC mytct.co/roMOaN: By July we were back to the BBC with another exceptionally popular 3D printing story — and it’s not hard to see why: 3D printing your own chocolates. Researchers from the University of Exeter were responsible for this attention grabbing story that further highlighted the possibilities for the technologies. The chocolate story followed on from a December 2010 story about printing your Christmas dinner — sprouts, for some reason, didn’t seem to get as much airtime.
The Telegraph mytct.co/nriu7Q: Also in July came the headline: “3D printing: the technology that could reshape the world,” from the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. A reasonably well researched piece — it at least admits that the technology has been around for decades — we again see a very narrow view of the technology spectrum. 3D printers, apparently, “use a fine powder that sets into a hard, plaster-like finish, building up an object one layer at a time.” You can make your own mind up as to who will be happy with this description, and who might like an addendum.
The Independent on Sunday mytct.co/qhCwrG: The most recent of the mainstream players to get involved with a piece about how the world of decorative art is being ‘revolutionised’ by 3D printing. A little heavy on the hype —“Virtually anything you can imagine, you can create — from earrings or shoes to an aeroplane or even a house” — though is generally a good roundup of the technology. One thing the author does point out (and then immediately falls foul of) is the fact that the penetration into the mainstream has been hampered by the myriad processes available. No common message is being driven forward, because no one common message exists. The article gives coverage of PolyJet, SLS and SLA, but leaves out FDM and ZPrinter technology — you can’t have it all...
So there has been plenty of coverage for the sector, but most of it has been given the high gloss of the mainstream media and anything that might be a bit difficult to explain — like the fact that there is more than one process available, or their names — has been omitted. Thanks to technology it is possible not only to gauge the response of readers, but also see exactly what they had to say in the comments section. Thoughts from lay readers range from “fun, but how can 3D be printed onto a flat sheet of paper?” — which would certainly indicate more work needs to be done to educate the population — to “So when do we get Star Trek replicators?” — which should warn marketers of the dangers of over promising and under delivering.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
For current users of this technology, or those interested in getting involved, this surge in interest can only be a good thing. Increased promotion will lead to increased uptake and falling prices. It could also mean that misinformation about the technology is recycled across multiple forums, leading to significant disappointment when a purchase is made. If you’re expecting to be able to print out a new bike with your 3D printer, for example, you’ll either have to be exceptionally dedicated (and slim) or resign yourself to salt shakers and coat hooks.
THE HYPE CYCLE
Gartner Inc., a technology research firm, recently released its annual Hype Cycle analysis (mytct.co/ppMGyr). This graphic representation of the maturity, adoption, and social application tracks technologies through the Technology Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, Trough of Disillusionment, Slope of Enlightenment to the Plateau of Productivity (Fig.1). As of July 2011, the company has 3D printing entering the final ascendance of the Peak of Inflated Expectations — and from the coverage summary it is easy to see why. Hype is defined as: to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicise showily and as such is an integral part of driving adoption of any new technology.
What we must be ready for however is the disillusionment phase — especially if the hype is such that it cannot be delivered within expected timeframes. It is interesting that Gartner class 3D printing as 5–10 years away from mainstream adoption — although whether this means market saturation or the first phase of early adopters is unknown. Other technologies in the same situation as 3D printing (in terms of time to the mainstream and current hype cycle position) include Internet TV, Image Recognition and Near Field Communication Payments.
WHO ARE YOU AND WHY ARE YOU INTERESTED IN 3D PRINTING?
LinkedIn is an excellent source of information for 3D printing — the TCT Live Group is particularly active — whether researching the subject, troubleshooting a current challenge or just exchanging views. The 3D Printing group has a thread started in 2008 called ‘Who are you and why are you interested in 3D printing?’, which has, at the time of writing, some 252 comments from interested participants. Responses range from people who have been in the industry since the first additive technologies emerged, to those whose curiosity has been piqued by the aforementioned Hype Cycle — and from American attorneys to Norwegian salmon fishermen!
It is clear from studying the responses that the geographical spread of the technology is as wide as the application and motivations of the users. While the majority are still using 3D printing in a business environment (either as a form of rapid prototyping, or earlier in the design process) there is a small and vocal minority who use the technologies simply for fun. As ever cost is the factor most often quoted as a hurdle to adoption, typically ‘I would love a 3D printer but they are too expensive’ or, worse ‘I have a 3D printer but don’t use it as much as I would like because of material costs’.
THE MAKER SCENE
The ‘Maker Scene’ is already huge, and growing significantly year on year. This year’s Bay Area Maker Faire — organised by MAKE: magazine — took place at the same time as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ RAPID event. With roughly 1000 visitors RAPID proved to be a vibrant, if somewhat predictable, industry gathering. The Maker Faire on the other hand had almost 100,000 visitors through the doors, helping to pursue the organisers goal to: “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It- Yourself mindset.” Admittedly not all (not even a majority) of the interest at the makerfaire would have revolved around 3D printing, but the buzz around the DIY maker scene will certainly be one of the most important factors in driving 3D printing forward.
TALKING OF MAKERS...
Makerbot Industries, and the company’s charismatic boss Bre Pettis, are at the vanguard of the consumer 3D printing revolution. With the sort of counter-culture outlook that defines the best modern tech startups, the company has grown from a three-man team with $75k seed money, to one of the shining lights of the DIY 3D printing sphere with over 5200 MakerBots sold. In August the company secured $10m of investment from VCs to help them grow their open-source empire. One of the seed fund investors in the earliest days was Dr Adrian Bowyer of Rep-Rap fame, the original open- source 3D printing project.
In the last 12 months one of the industry’s largest companies, the long- established 3D Systems, has made it’s claim to the hobbyist/consumer end of the additive sector through a series of high-profile acquisitions and a change of marketing direction. When the company bought UK-based Bits from Bytes in September 2010 it caused ripples throughout the industry, with plenty of discussion about what the future held for the Bits from Bytes brand. One year on and the theories that BfB may be buried without trace seem unfounded. Indeed 3D Systems appears to have pushed the ‘consumer’ printers hard with a fresh marketing approach that included promoting the systems at The Gadget Show Live, Birmingham, UK, in April. This sort platform gives access to thousands of tech-obsessed early adopters, and places 3D printing on a level playing field with established and emerging consumer electronics, hobby kit and more.
Although so much has changed in the last 12 months, it’s also true that for the end-user things remain much the same. Prices have stayed roughly static, availability is roughly the same, the technologies have stayed the same. So if you know what you want, what you can afford and how to get hold of it, you’ll still be able to get involved and start reaping the rewards offered by these exciting technologies. For the most part however, it’s a case of either jump in head first and make your own way, or play the waiting game.