After the Hype Hangover: What’s Next for 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing?

If you haven’t been following 3D printing very closely, the last thing you probably remember is the surge of excitement in the early 2010s. Fueled by expired patents, matured technology, and cheap(er) hardware, a huge rush of companies and printers flooded the market. Most of them failed.

Some of these companies underestimated how difficult it is to build hardware and 3D printers specifically; others placed huge bets on “consumer 3D printing”, which proved to be mistimed at best.

3D Systems and Stratasys stock peaked in January 2014 — https://goo.gl/3tYQFx

As the demise of consumer 3D printing drove headlines about the downfall of a technology once thought revolutionary, a different kind of product was quietly growing and maturing in the background: professional 3D printing. Gartner’s fabled hype cycle didn’t even separate “professional 3D printing” from the generic “3D printing” umbrella until 2013!

Gartner’s Hype Cycle, 2010–2015 (source)

The State of Professional 3D Printing in 2017

According to Wohlers Report, about 700,000 3D printers have been sold from the beginning of time through the end of 2015. Only 100,000 of those printers sold at a price point of $5,000 or above. Although some professional printers (like our Form 2) fly in below $5,000, the vast majority of the professional category will cost you well over $5,000 (in fact, more like over $50,000).

What are professional 3D printers used for today? The answer is overwhelmingly the same as it was 15 years ago: rapid prototyping. From idea conception through design validation and iterative design, professional printers help people who design products in CAD materialize their designs to cut time and money from the product development process.

But the landscape is changing rapidly, driven by two key factors:

  1. Printers crossing a threshold of reliability in both operation and print quality.
  2. New material innovations closing the gap between 3D printing materials and traditional engineering materials in both properties and stability.

Professional 3D printing has been chugging along and increasing in prevalence, for a simple reason: an existing and growing group of people is supporting it, namely active CAD users, who model in 3D as part of their day-to-day work. That’s 5–20 million people, depending on how conservative you want to get, including engineers, product designers, architects, researchers, animators, and even dentists.

What’s next for this new wave of professional 3D printing?

The Future Will Be Customized

Mass customization as a concept is not new, but with the advancements in 3D printing detailed above, we’re starting to see an increasing number of cases where products can be manufactured not only in mass quantities, but with a high degree of customization.

Today’s buyers want to purchase products that ship overnight, cost less every year, are environmentally friendly, and (most importantly) are “made for us.” We’re used to customizing the software and apps built around our lives. The expectations developed through those experiences incite the same expectations for physical products.

At this point, it’s important to ask — why do we need custom stuff?

What is the most custom thing in the world? The answer is, of course, our bodies— there are over 7.5 billion of them and counting.

Some early examples of mass customization in action.

Although today there are only limited examples of mass customization in action, in the next 3–5 years, expect to see a lot more.

The largest by-material use application of 3D printing today can be filed under mass customization — Invisalign dental aligners, which start with a 3D print. By 2014, close to 150 million of these aligners were produced, each individually customized for patients (I highly recommend watching this video about how Invisalign aligners are made).

In general, everything that requires a high level of customization and high value will benefit from mass customization and additive manufacturing. Aligners are extremely custom and high value — that’s why they’re already being enabled by 3D printing today.

Everything that requires a high level of customization and high value will benefit from mass customization and additive manufacturing.

As affordable, high quality 3D printers become available, other ambitious projects become more accessible; for example, Lyman Connor’s low volume production of custom prosthetic hands, directly printed with stereolithography machines. You can already find other examples in the medical field, especially around prosthetics, dental care, and other high-value products like customized jewelry.

Applications that target high value and high customization will appear first as mass customization takes off.

From Mass Production to Mass Customization

Mass customization is already happening to some degree, but how do we truly make a move from mass production to mass customization? Additive manufacturing (or as we usually call it — 3D printing) plays a unique role in this new method of manufacturing. It all comes down to per-part cost and part performance.

Volume and per-part cost

Per-part cost is a central question because all aspects of manufacturing push this number: direct and indirect labor cost, tooling cost, material cost, etc. With a conventional manufacturing method like injection molding, per-part cost is inversely proportional to the number of parts produced.

For a 3D printer, it doesn’t really matter if you make 3 or 300 — you will pay the same price per part.

Up until the yellow breakeven point, it’s more economical to 3D print a part instead of using a conventional manufacturing method like injection molding.

As 3D printing becomes more streamlined and reliable, the yellow point will continue moving to the right, making increasingly high quantities of production good applications for additive manufacturing.

Some of the changes streamlining 3D printing include:

  1. Making more affordable and reliable printers.
  2. Cheaper materials.
  3. Less setup time, post-processing time, and equipment requirements.
  4. More software automation (enabling parallel production, scheduling, and yield optimization).

Materials and part performance

Per-part cost doesn’t matter if the material properties of a final part don’t meet the specification. Traditionally, 3D printers have been known for producing flimsy plastic parts, inferior to mass manufacturing counterparts like PET, HDPE, PP, ABS, and many others.

The people conducting some of the most important and impressive work in 3D printing today are the materials scientists. For the first 30 years of 3D printing, the same chemistries were continually being perfected and explored. Today, new processes and materials are being commercialized to attempt to match and exceed some of their traditional counterparts in performance.

What’s Next: The Digital Factory

If you’ve read this far, I invite you to join us on June 5, 2017 in Cambridge, MA at the MIT Media Lab at our The Digital Factory event for a conversation with manufacturing pioneers, large industry players, and innovators about how digital manufacturing will change how we the next generation of products are made.

“The Digital Factory” isn’t just a concept: it’s already happening. Visit a factory line today and you might already find a couple dozen 3D printers. With a little more work from printer manufacturers, we’re on track to reach a new tipping point in the next few years.

Visit digitalfactory.xyz to register.