According to industry experts, the 3D printing market is expected to boom in a big, big way in the coming decade. A $1 billion industry in 2012, 3D printing could be pushing $20 billion by 2025. The appeal of 3D printing is fairly obvious—essentially, it allows you to create a tangible, three-dimensional model of just about anything you want. There’re almost no limits to the possibilities of 3D printing, so it’s high time the industry starts living up to its potential.
Pushing the Limits of Technology
A key factor in the coming 3D printing boom, according to Jon Harrop, director of IDTechEX and co-author of a new market report on the subject, is rapidly improving technology. Both existing 3D printing technology and new technologies continue to evolve at a pace unrivaled by that of nearly any other industry.
The report notes the significant advances in not just “traditional” plastic or thermoplastic 3D printing, but also metal 3D printing. I was not aware that 3D printing with metal was a thing, so I guess it’s no surprise that the technology is, apparently, light years ahead of where I thought it was.
At least one company has been doing high-level metal 3D printing for years, with notable work dating back to 2006, when they provided the world’s first 3D printed titanium skull implant; a 3D printed metal full-jaw replacement piece followed in 2011. I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t want to be behind the recipient of either of those implants in the security line at the airport. “Do you have any metal objects anywhere on your person, sir?” “Yes, the entire bottom half of my face.”
Seeking the Sweet Spot
One potential hurdle in the growth of 3D printing can be found at the intersection of cost and speed. Currently, most “additive manufacturing” technology falls into either the cheap-and-slow category or the expensive-and-fast category. Few, if any, viable options exist in the sweet spot of above-average speed at below-average cost.
This is to be expected, of course—you get what you pay for. But until a feasible, DIY 3D printing option that can meet OEMs’ needs for production capacity and per-piece cost is available, most companies will likely continue to get their custom plastic extrusions and custom metal work done through “traditional” manufacturing processes.
The way I see it, that’s the key to 3D printing’s success. The market has long been touted as one that’s more or less intended for DIY, and, with that in mind, most companies that really need 3D printing will want to do it in-house. Until the technology exists that lets them do the work themselves quickly, reliably, and affordably, it’s doubtful the industry will be able to come close to that projected $20 billion mark.