The Third Industrial Revolution*
3-D Printing (or additive manufacturing) is a process that automatically builds objects layer-by-layer from a computer design. The objects themselves can be printed anywhere: on the factory floor, on the kitchen table or by astronauts on Mars.
It works similar to the way we print now. You create what you want to print on the computer, but you use computer-aided design (CAD) tools that turn your design into data in 3D file formats rather than text like a word document. The computer then sends the design (in this 3D data format) to the printer as job.
The printer’s software accepts computer-aided design (CAD) that tells the printer where to lay down the material (plastic, metal, glass, paper, etc.), per the design, in very thin layers (as fine as 1/1000th of an inch.) It continues to print or build up the design, layer after layer, until the physical object is manufactured.
Because of its many benefits (fast turnaround, reduced inventories, requires less raw material, can produce more complex designs, can make one product at a time, less expensive, etc.) The Economist magazine recently stated that 3D printing will usher in the “Third Industrial Revolution.” Their view, as well as many others, is that 3D printing could cause manufacturing to change from a centralized, mass manufacturing process to a more customized, In Place process.
While this technology is not new, it has only been in the past few years that the costs of the printers, software and materials have become affordable to small and mid-size companies. As these costs have continued to drop, they have now become inexpensive enough to be introduced into the consumer market.
Printers come in various sizes, use different technologies in the printing process, vary in the quality of the printer and the printed product, and can cost a few thousand dollars up to a bout a million dollars. The cost and quality of the materials used can also vary, and can be proprietary to the printer brand. Software also varies in complexity and costs.
There is also a service industry that is growing rapidly. Companies will print your design, overnight if you want or you can order a product of a design that already exists.
3D printing is currently being used in many industries including manufacturing, medical, healthcare, military and education. Some of the things currently being printed are prototype models, auto parts, aircraft landing gear, orthopedic prosthesis, dental crowns, food, jewelry, and many more.
3D printing is a rapidly growing market with new companies, new products and new ideas surfacing constantly. We are only in the beginning stages of this expanding industry. However, the current market is mostly industrial vs. consumer because of cost and complexity. As the costs come down and the process becomes easier to use, the adoption of 3D printing will expand rapidly.
3D printing was a $777 Million dollar market in 2012 and is expected to grow to $8.9* billion by 2020.
Here are a few examples of companies that are developing new products and services for the 3D printing market:
- A mobile laser scanner that processes data via a smart phone.,
- 3D bio-printing technology to create functional human tissues on demand
- Inexpensive (as low as $300) 3D printers for the consumer market
- New and less costly materials
- Full color desktop 3D printers
- Less expensive desktop scanners
- Printers that makes pharmaceuticals
- Multi-material 3D printer head so print different materials at the same time
- A combination 3D printer, scanner and fax machine
- Distributed manufacturing (i.e., your design printed at Office Max)
To keep up with new developments in 3D printing, be sure to follow us on Twitter @jzitek or follow the 3D Printing category on our blog.
*Title of Article in The Economist