The Internet. Social media. Smartphones. Every now and then, in the crowded landscape of overhyped gadgets that exaggerate their capabilities and disappoint end users, some new invention comes along and really does change everything.
3D printing (also known by the duller name of “additive manufacturing”) looks to be the next big thing. The technology already has valuable applications in many industries, including architecture (precise models), automobiles (parts, prototypes), manufacturing (ideal for highly-customized parts), dentistry (crowns), medical (specialized supplies, prosthetic limbs), and more. And that’s just what it can do now – the future of 3D printing is even more exciting, with potential uses like instant home delivery of online products and 3D-printed organs for transplants on the horizon.
Aside from the technology, the business side of 3D printing is also promising. According to CCS Insight, the industry was worth $1.5 billion worldwide in 2013, and that figure is expected to grow over 3 times to $4.8 billion by 2018. Unit sales are expected to grow tenfold from 81,000 in 2013 to 850,000 in 2018.
Education will also be affected by this new technology. 3D printers are finding their way into schools and universities around the world, with many top educators and researchers believing that the interactive nature of 3D printing and CAD (computer-aided design) serves as a highly effective way to teach concepts in technology, math, geography, history, art, and other subjects.
Despite their rising popularity and industrial profile, relatively few people know how to make their own creations using 3D printers. Working with CAD files is much, much more difficult than typing out something in Word and sending it over to your regular ol’ 2D printer. Even just taking someone else’s design and printing it yourself can be complicated. The demand for 3D printer trained workers is out there, but such workers are hard to find.
The learning curve is steep indeed: the machine itself requires a fair bit of maintenance (dealing with the messy resin is a chore enough on its own), and it takes hours and hours of training with the necessary software before you’re able to create your own custom 3D designs.
All of those exciting current and potential applications of 3D printing won’t mean much if no one knows how to use these machines…
Thankfully, many organizations, from universities to private training companies to the 3D printer retailers themselves, are stepping up their education efforts. Before we get to 3D printer training, let’s take a look at the industry as a whole.
Chuck Hull’s Tabletops: The Beginnings of 3D Printing
3D printing’s been around longer than you probably think. Even though we’ve only started talking about it lately, the industry actually got its start in the 80s.
It all started with Chuck Hull. In 1984, Hull, who earned a B.S. in engineering physics in 1961, got a crazy idea when he was using ultraviolet light to harden tabletop coatings. Couldn’t a similar process be used to make things from scratch?
Hull officially got his patent for “stereolithography” (using a vat of ultraviolet resin and an ultraviolet laser to build 3D objects one layer at a time) in 1986. He founded his own company to monetize his invention that same year, effectively starting the 3D printing industry.
This is not one of those stories where the mind behind an amazing invention lives his life without the proper recognition or compensation. In 2014, Hull was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and, perhaps even more importantly, Hull’s company has survived for nearly 30 years. It’s still around, and it’s done more than just survive, actually. 3D Systems is one of the top 3D printing companies today, having earned $653 million in revenue in 2014.
A quick overview of how 3D printers work feels somewhat necessary at this point – feel free to skip these next couple paragraphs if you already know. Everyone else: you know how regular inkjet printers print one line at a time? Well, 3D printers are like that, printing one layer at a time from the bottom to the top. The resin material is in a vat, and a laser beam is used to solidify the material in the shape of the desired object. In the vat there’s a platform attached to an elevator, which raises and lowers the material in place as the laser does its work.
The cheapest 3D printers can only make items with one color and one material, but more advanced, expensive models are able to use multiple colors and materials in the same item.
The dream of healthcare workers and engineers alike is to one day be able to get rid of the waiting list on organs and instead print them out on-demand (over 8,000 US patients die while waiting for an organ donor every year).
While we’re not quite there yet, great strides have been made: In 1999, the first lab-grown organ was transplanted into a human patient using 3D synthetic scaffolding made from the patient’s own cells. In 2002, scientists 3D printed a miniature kidney that was able to produce diluted urine. And just a few years ago, in 2012, doctors in the Netherlands created a customized prosthetic lower jaw using a 3D printer and successfully implanted it into an 83-year-old woman suffering from a bone infection.
Although making working human organs from scratch is still a work in progress, 3D printing is already saving lives in healthcare. On October 28, 2011, Kaiba Gionfriddo was born premature, with lung issues and a weak windpipe. 6 weeks after he was born, Kaiba stopped breathing. He was literally turning blue. A tracheostomy and later a ventilator kept him breathing, but not very well, with his heart stopping almost every day.
“Quite a few doctors said he had a good chance of not leaving the hospital alive,” said April Gionfriddo, Kaiba’s mother.
The doctors had run out of conventional options, so they obtained an emergency clearance from the FDA to craft a custom lung splint using a 3D printer.
“It was amazing,” said Glenn Green, M.D., who operated on Kaiba. “As soon as the splint was put in, the lungs started going up and down for the first time and we knew he was going to be OK.” 30 days after the operation, Kaiba was finally able to breathe without a ventilator.
So, other than savings lives, what do today’s businesses that have already invested in 3D printers actually use the technology for?
A December 2014 Gartner survey asked 300 companies with 100+ employees and 3D printers that very question. The top 5 answers were prototyping (24.5% of respondents listed prototyping as their main reason for using 3D printers), product development (16.1%), creating items that are impossible to make without 3D printers (11.1%), increased efficiency (9.4%), and cost reduction (9.4%).
Gartner research director Pete Basiliere explained cost-effectiveness’s role in the rise of 3D printing. “An interesting finding was that respondents felt overwhelmingly that using a 3D printer as part of their supply chain generally reduces the cost of existing processes, especially research and product development costs,” said Basiliere. “The mean cost reduction for finished goods is between 4.1 percent and 4.3 percent, which is an impressive figure. It shows that early adopters of the technology are finding clear benefits, which are likely to drive further adoption.”
A Growing, Multibillion Dollar Industry
We mentioned earlier that the 3D printing industry is expected to be worth $4.5 billion in 2018, but that’s just one organization’s estimate.
Other organizations also believe that the 3D printing industry is going to be strong over the next decade, with one study projecting the industry to grow by about 20% per year and be worth $8.6 billion in 2020.
The Wohlers Report 2014 also expects growth. Wohlers Associates believe the 3D printing industry will have $12.8 billion in revenue in 2018 and $21 billion in revenue in 2020.
“The industry is transitioning from a prototyping past to a production future,” said Tim Caffrey, the Wohlers Associates senior consultant who wrote the report. “Opportunities for [additive manufacturing] in production applications are orders of magnitude greater than for modeling and prototyping. The money is in manufacturing, not prototyping.”
Wohlers Associates also believes that while 3D printing’s role in manufacturing will continue to expand, most of this growth will result from a future spike in personal ownership of relatively affordable (less than $5,000) home 3D printers.
But for the technology to really take off, we need more scanning machines. “We expect more and more smartphones, tablets and PCs to come with 3D scanning abilities,” says Arnaud Gagneux, Vice President of Technology Transformation at CCS Insight (the organization we referenced for that initial $4.5 billion in 2018 estimate). “This will make 3D printers more attractive by simplifying the process of rendering something you want to print and overcoming the need for extensive libraries of blueprints.”
“The consumer and desktop 3D printer market is still in its infancy and we expect many positive disruptions in coming years,” Gagneux continued. “Consumers will only buy 3D printers if they can see a clear use for them. To drive mass sales, manufacturers need to change the perception that 3D printers are simply a bit of fun and create sustainable demand beyond just an occasional need… As major consumer brands enter the space and as 3D printers are more heavily marketed and available in more places, awareness will grow.”
But what about the cost?
“3D printing has broad appeal to a wide range of businesses and early adopter consumers, and while the technology is already in use across a wide range of manufacturing verticals from medical to aerospace, costs remain the primary concern for buyers,” said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner. “3D printer vendors must work closely with their clients to identify potential applications of the technology that may have been overlooked, and improve the cost-benefit ratios of their products.”
Basiliere’s concerns about cost may not be relevant for much longer, though. Those worried about the price of a 3D printer now may have to reconsider their position in the near-future, as a report from Siemens projected in 2014 that 3D printers will be 50% cheaper (as well as 400% faster) by 2018.
Bridging the Knowledge Gap
If you bought a 3D printer from industry leaders Stratasys or 3D Systems, then you’ll be able to get some education from them, as they both offer webinars and other online resources to their customers. Stratasys also holds additional in-person conferences, and 3D Systems funds a program that promotes digital literacy at the K – 12 level.
“[3D Printing] is a new journey for us. It requires new skills, it requires a brand new education,” says Dennis Little, Vice President of Production at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “In the days gone by in aerospace, most of our engineers — me included — were left-brained. We think in right angles and straight lines… I’m projecting about 120 production professionals are needed here in Denver.”
Little has a problem. He needs some members of this new breed of right-brained engineers for his Lockheed staff, but he was having trouble finding workers who were properly trained with 3D printers.
“We are told constantly by our economic development office that they lose new companies coming to Colorado who are advance-manufacturing companies because they are told there is no workforce,” said Metropolitan State University of Denver President Stephen Jordan.
Jordan decided to do something about it. MSU only offered a 2-year certifications program, and Jordan pushed to bring a 4-year degree to the school. He worked with Little and Lockheed Martin and the electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering departments of MSU to develop a curriculum, and now the 4-year degree track is a reality. 70 students are currently enrolled in the Additive Manufacturing certification program, and Jordan expects 3 times as many to enroll in the 4-year degree program avaliable next year.
“We believe that not only will this initial 200 [students] be taken up very quickly, but that it’ll put a lot of pressure to grow the size of the program,” said Jordan. “Industry folks are very clear that the starting salaries for our graduates will be in the $60,000 to $65,000-a-year range, which is well above the institution-wide average salary for our first year graduates of about $38,500.”
With starting salaries like that, it’s only a matter of time until the workforce expands to match the rising popularity of the machines. Jordan’s story is just one of the many over the past few years featuring schools recognizing the importance of 3D printing and expanding their curriculum to include it. The future of 3D printing looks bright indeed.