From a major VC firm’s recent $30 million investment in the industrial-grade 3-D printing space to the news that Staples will become the first major U.S. retailer to sell consumer-friendly 3-D printers, it’s clear that 3-D printing has reached its inflection point.
And perhaps its hype point, too.
The technology is decades old, but now there’s an ecosystem in place (which includes my own company) that moves it beyond the maker edges to mainstream center. So now more than ever I’m asked for an insider’s view on the hype vs. realities of 3-D printing — and where it’s going.
3-D printing won’t replace other manufacturing technology
3-D printing is indeed an important fabrication technology, because it has the marvelous ability to make anything regardless of the complexity of the form. Other fabrication techniques, honed over decades of industrialization, struggle with geometric complexity — where 3-D printers can print either the most intricate shapes or simplest cube with equal ease.
The fact is that 3-D printing is really, still, an immature technology.
Never before have we had a technology where we can so freely translate our ideas into a tangible object with little regard to the machinery or skills available. Yet just as the microwave didn’t replace all other forms of cooking as initially predicted, 3-D printing will not replace other manufacturing technologies let alone industrial-scale ones for a variety of reasons. It will complement them.
The fact is that 3-D printing is really, still, an immature technology. We’ve built a magical aura around it — sci-fi style replicator! — but as soon as anyone actually uses a 3-D printer for any period of time, they immediately wish for faster build times, higher quality prints, larger build envelopes, better and cheaper materials … and so on.
We need a different kind of Moore’s-like Law for 3-D printing
While the hype paints visions of limitless replication — lost components, shoes, body parts, musical instruments, even guns — here’s a key fact: Where 3-D printing may be unfettered by complexity, it is constrained by volume.
Everything from cost and time to amount of material increases exponentially: specifically, to the third power.
So if we want something twice as big, it will cost 8 times as much and take 8 times as long to print. If we want something three times as big, it will cost about 27 times more and takes 27 times longer to print. And so on.
Carl Bass is president and CEO of Autodesk, a provider of 3-D design, engineering, and entertainment software. He co-founded Ithaca Software, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993. Bass serves on the Board of Directors of Autodesk, E2open, the Art Center College of Design, and the Rocky Mountain Institute. He is also a member of the Executive Advisory Boards of Cornell Computing and Information Science and the U.C. Berkeley School of Information. Bass holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cornell University.
The 3-D printing ecosystem is changing
The limitations introduced by “the 3rd power law of 3-D printing” — as well as the freedom of scale introduced by the unfettered complexity — should bookend any discussion of where 3-D printing is going.
But everything else in between these two immutable facts is constantly changing. That includes the quality and speed of 3-D printing as well as the vibrant collection of people and companies working to overcome the current limitations and broaden use of the technology.
The most common 3-D printing today is smaller-than-a-breadbox printing of plastic parts on machines ranging from open-source printers like RepRap to off-the-shelf printers like 3D Systems’ Cube (the one being carried by Staples). Then there are low-cost commercial printers like MakerBot and more expensive industrial versions made by companies like Stratasys and EOS. [For more specific numbers and data about the size, share, and growth of the market here, see the recent annual report by Wohlers Associates, which has been releasing it for 18 years.]
The ecosystem isn’t just about the printers, however. 3-D printing is part of the accelerating software-controlled manufacturing trend which is making not just 3-D printers — but laser cutters, mills, lathes, routers, and industrial robots — increasingly powerful, affordable, approachable … and therefore accessible to lay users. Software is democratizing this space just as the PC democratized computing.
3-D printing needs better business models
The range of 3-D printable materials and scale of output has broadened considerably even as the plastic formulations of current materials continue to improve. Large industrial printers can now print metal, rubber, and ceramics in addition to plastic.
However, many commenters focus so much on the limitations of printed materials, that they tend to overlook something much more important: the cost.
In the average life of a typical 3-D printer, yards — even miles — of material (which are really just spools of plastic) can be used. Many manufacturers have therefore adopted a razor-razorblade model, or in this case: an inkjet cartridge-like business model for 3-D printing. There’s really very little difference between the material fed into the 3-D printer and the raw commodity, yet the cost to consumers can be up to 100 times higher. So I think this aspect is ripe for new business models that would better expand the use of 3-D printing technology and viability of the marketplace.
These are the important research directions
With so much buzz around every latest announcement in the 3-D printing space, it’s hard to tell what’s commonplace and what’s really interesting to pay attention to. Because constant improvements are happening in everything and especially in what you can print — whether replacement part or novel design, inert or organic material, at scales from the microscopic to a house, on earth or in space.
The 3rd power law of 3-D printing: Everything from cost and time to amount of material increases to the third power.
I think two important areas to watch here are printing electronics — i.e., not just objects but logic and function — and the burgeoning field of bioprinting. The latter represents some of the most exciting work employing 3-D printers. For example, Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has pioneered work that includes the successful printing and implantation of human urethras. San Diego-based Organovo prints functional human tissue that can be used for medical research and therapeutic applications. And companies like Craig Venter’s as well as Cambrian Genomics (which I have a small personal investment in) are printing DNA — yes, DNA! — one base pair at a time.
Another important direction in the 3-D printing landscape involves the shift to architectural-scale 3-D printing. Examples include the work of Ron Rael at U.C. Berkeley, who has been working with new, low-cost organic materials and the work of Boris Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California who has been experimenting with 3-D printing full-size buildings.
The European Space Agency and Foster + Partners have teamed up to design a moonbase structure 3-D printed with Monolite UK’s D-Shape, though the beauty of their concept is that it would draw entirely on materials found on the moon. This is important since it helps push the materials limitations of 3-D printing from what is supplied to what is found. And someone out there has already hacked a 3-D printer to use only waste materials — imagine the possibilities of using 3-D printing for true recycling and reuse.
The next shift is from prototyping to limited production
3-D printing and other technologies in the software-controlled manufacturing trend fundamentally rewrite the rules of mass production. No longer do we need to produce things in very large quantities to enjoy low cost and high quality; we can get very high quality products in small lots at a reasonable cost.
There is a shift looming where 3-D printing can be useful for more than just rapid prototyping of small plastic parts and for small-batch production. However, I don’t expect to see 3-D printing replace very inexpensive production methods.
Note that cost-plus business models are very vulnerable to disruption — it’s the equivalent of having a one-trick pony in the race.
Think about the Kinko’s model, which didn’t replace desktop printers or production-scale printing houses — but still played an important role in the reproduction ecosystem. With 3-D printing, companies like Shapeways round out the ecosystem of printer hardware and software-controlled manufacturing by providing both services for 3-D printing and a marketplace of designs. And then there are also design repositories, like Thingiverse, and Instructables (owned by Autodesk).
Note however that fee-based, cost-plus/ time-and-materials business models are very vulnerable to disruption — it’s the equivalent of having a one-trick pony in the race. The advantage there, then, isn’t in being a first mover but in having a rich and thriving community — that’s the key differentiator in what can easily become a crowded space.
Instead of a mass-manufacturing marketplace where everything is made the same way, I expect the “production” trajectory for 3-D printing to start with low-volume, high-value objects like prosthetic devices or bespoke items like jewelry. Most 3-D printing will be personal and custom, similar to the way we use our inkjet printers today. Just as rip-mix-burn became the anthem for digital music, we are starting to do the same thing for the physical world with capture-modify-print (or download-modify-print) using only the cameras on our cellphones to inform computer vision algorithms.
3-D printing won’t bring manufacturing back to the United States
So will this capability really bring manufacturing back to the U.S. and other developed countries?
Yes and no. It will enable domestic manufacturing, but not the same kind, and it probably will not bring back the jobs that have been lost. The product companies of the future will have design, engineering, and manufacturing more tightly integrated together — rapid prototyping and the ability to manufacture small runs will be crucial to their success. This means the jobs of the future will continue to be higher skilled, and that the skills of future craftspeople will be as much digital as they are analog.
Perhaps the only way to truly understand the crucial role computers are playing in the next generation of manufacturing is, ironically, by omitting the digital. There’s a delightful 3-D printing device on Kickstarter called the 3Doodler — a 3-D printer without the computer — which has raised more than $2M. You can hold it in your hand and “draw” in the air, essentially piling molten plastic on top of itself. But it’s like dripping wet sand to build castles in the air. So while this revolution may appear to be all about hardware, it’s impossible without the microprocessors and the software.