3D Printing is dead. Long Live 3D Printing
The premise that “Home 3D Printing Is Killing The Manufacturing Industry” seems laughable now that the world has more than 700 desktop 3D printing companies capable of printing Yoda and approximately zero capable of printing a safe, reusable cup.
Desktop 3D printers promised the world. Evangelists preached “you can make anything!” Academics proclaimed 3D printers would save the average person $2000 per year. The Economist pronounced the coming of a Third Industrial Revolution. Crypto-anarchists 3D printed guns and the media reacted as if shot in the arm. The applications and potential seemed only limited by Luddite imaginations.
Yet here we are in 2016 and little of this has come to pass. Where’s my replicator? And what is this possibly toxic, unbearably slow, unreliable, noisy, over-glorified hot glue gun doing in its stead? We were promised food printers and home replicators. We got clogged nozzles and semi-fraudulent Kickstarter campaigns. The sector overheated and practitioners watched helplessly as the 3D printed vision rapidly warped.
We had a false start. Desktop 3D printers are tremendous tools for educators, makers and businesses but have negligible value for consumers. Amazon and centralized manufacturers do a better job serving the long tail.
Entrepreneurs swarmed towards 3D printing. Like the first dotcom rush, most built crappy companies. Hundreds failed, a bubble burst, and those in it to make a quick buck went sulking elsewhere. The home 3D printing narrative died.
Desktop 3D printers were the catalyst but not the revolution.
Far from stalling, additive manufacturing (AM) is taking off. New Boeing 737s contain hundreds of AM parts. Align Technologies, the invisible elephant in the room, produces one hundred thousand 3D prints each day that mold the plastic on consumers’ teeth everywhere. Nearly every week, chatter emerges of the latest titan of industry to explore 3D printing finished goods.
Startups are returning with a roaring vengeance. In February, Wiivv broke the crowdfunding record for a 3D printed good and, refreshingly, started shipping product within the month. Carbon3D came out of stealth mode in the most masterful launch since the Steve Jobs era, with a concurrent cover article in Science and a talk at TED.
Research and development spending in 3DP more than doubled over the past two years. Stratasys and 3D Systems each spent less than $45m in 2013 and more than $90m in 2015. Carbon3D and HP will collectively invest hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their printers.
As these new technologies hit the market, many manufacturers will be slow to recognize the technology’s potential, having rightly dismissed the desktop 3D printers of yesteryear. Where AM once competed with injection molding up to 200 units, it will soon compete up to 10,000 units. AM is crossing the chasm from prototyping to finished good production.
Suddenly, we face 300 million metric tons of disruption. Lead times on plastic parts drop from six weeks to two days. A virtuous cycle unfolds: as more goods are 3D printed, the cost drops, and more goods are 3D printed. AM service margins decline from 400–600% to the 2–3% of traditional manufacturing.
A revered rule of thumb states that a technology must be 10x better to win. The next generation of industrial 3D printers supports 10–25x the throughput of today’s machines. Multi Jet Fusion springs past one color to millions of colors without compromising structural integrity. Carbon 3D creates layers 100x thinner than the status quo. Voxel8 prints an ink 1000x more conductive than predecessors. Objectively speaking, the technology will improve greater than 10x overnight.
The hype is dead. Long live 3D printing.
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