At last year’s TCT Live, and on many occasions since, I have boldly proclaimed that there will be no additive manufacturing revolution. My position has been that we will continue to see an evolution. The evolution would produce impressive growth, rewarding gains and interesting developments. However, I forecasted no across-the-board disruptions of industries or current practices.
Well, I was wrong. Not completely, but I was a bit off. Where I erred was in making a broad, generalized statement.
The reality that I have come to appreciate, while talking with dyed-in-the-wool manufacturers at a US event named Eastec, is that additive manufacturing will foster both evolutions and revolutions. For the former, additive manufacturing will grow, becoming a popular alternative to conventional practices, not a substitute. For the latter, it will be a disruptive force that displaces the status quo.
What triggers a revolution rather than an evolution is the intensity of the need and the ability of additive manufacturing to deliver where the status quo cannot. This pairing of needs and advantages will be within specific segments of industries and applications or for new segments created through innovations.
At Eastec, I was reminded that additive manufacturing was revolutionary in the jewelry industry. Where there were once cadres of master crafters, now there are 3D printers. Yet, even though it has ushered in sweeping change, additive manufacturing isn’t the sole solution; benchtop mills are also popular.
The intense need in the jewelry industry was twofold. First, the pool of masters was small and shrinking. Jewelry crafting was becoming a lost art. Second, jewelry manufacturing was rushing to low labor cost regions of the world.
With additive manufacturing, the artisan role was diminished so the labor-force issue was removed and the associated labor cost diminished the value of off-shoring.
In my Eastec presentation, I cited in-the-ear hearing aids as a highly successful production application for additive manufacturing. As I recounted the history of hearing aids, I realized I was telling a tale of a disruptive revolution.
Although the hearing aid companies were seeking decreases in production time and cost, those were not the motivators for the wide-spread process change. The intense need, and unexpected benefit, was improved fits. Prior to additive manufacturing, return rates were high due poor sound quality and wearer discomfort. Creating hearing aid shells direct from digital models of patients’ ear canals yielded perfect fits that eliminated these issues. Return rates plummeted while profits grew.
I remain in the camp that does not believe that we will find 3D printers in the majority of homes churning our objects for personal use and enjoyment. Service organizations will be the better option for the sporadic demand for 3D printed objects by the masses. However, 3D printing is revolutionary for the individual.
The intense need for a small, but significant, slice of the consumer market is an outlet for the original and creative visions that beg to take physical form. Without 3D printing, craftsmanship and skill sets were mandatory to make physical objects using machining, molding, forming and fabricating tools. So the consumer would have to develop the skills or pay significant sums of money to a model maker or tool and die shop. Even with access to the skills and tools, complex designs were often impractical.
3D printing changes that for individuals who wish to make items for personal consumption. Whether buying a 3D printer or buying from a consumer-focused service bureau, the technology simplifies the process of converting thoughts to physical forms.
The last example is the most exciting to me. It is where 3D printing unleashes innovation to create new markets, new applications and new methodologies. For this example, I refer to the custom ceramics company Figulo. This company loads a formerly-known-as-Z Corp 3D printer with ceramic powders, and as one of the service providers previously mention, it gives individuals a fast and affordable production method for their ceramic creations.
But that is not why I have included Figulo in this story. The innovation fueling this company’s revolution that caught my interest is how 3D printing has enabled Figulo to make its own wares for retail sales. At Eastec, Andrew Jeffries, Figulo’s founder, told me how his 3D printers have made it possible for him to enter the retail market. His machines eliminate the expense of making molds for each design and the physical space for storing those molds. But more importantly, his 3D printers have enabled him to launch 700 ceramic items for sale online or off the shelf.
According to Andrew, his approach is to design something, make a few and see if they sell. If they do, he has a winner. If not, he moves on. With minimal upfront investment, Figulo has the freedom to try anything without first having to gain the confidence that people will buy.
Figulo has not created a revolution in the ceramics-making industry, and I do not believe that it will do so in the future. Yet, on an individual basis, this company has benefited from an additive manufacturing revolution that will positively impact many companies in many industries with varied applications.
Through the examples by industry, application and innovation, we have evidence that additive manufacturing has spurred a revolution. However, the key point is that it is not the kind of revolution that produces sweeping change across broad swaths. And even for those that have an intense need that is poorly addressed by the status quo, the application of additive manufacturing will most likely be on a part-by-part basis. For them, it will be an evolution. The technology will be a powerful alternative when the stable of subtractive and formative processes fall short of addressing the needs, wants, challenges and opportunities.