3D printing: where is the promised revolution?

Filament 3DprintingDuring the past few years, as computer systems are becoming more powerful, the price of 3D printers is declining. At the moment, there is even a 3D printer that can be controlled by a smart phone. Companies like Shapeways have entered the professional printing services industry. Nevertheless, you still won’t find a 3D printing hub on every corner of the street, we still don’t go to the printing store on a daily basis and it’s not exactly a fad to buy your own 3D printer. Is the 3D printer really the second most important innovation after the printing press?

Will 3D printing revolutionize the economy? Last year, analysts of ABN AMRO predicted that the size of the Dutch 3D printing market would grow to 45 million euros. In 2013, market research firm Canalys estimated that by 2018 the size of the global market for 3D printing will probably reach 16 billion dollars. Yet another company, consultancy firm Wohlers Associates thinks that by 2020 the global market for 3D hardware and software will reach over 20 billion dollars. Finally, according to Marketsandmarkets the 3D printing market in the automotive industry will reach 1,5 billion dollars by 2020.

Promised revolution

A few years ago 3D printing fans promised us a revolution in manufacturing. They suggested production as well as product design would become a local activity. All you would need is a blueprint. Other experts even expected that large parts of the traditional supply chain would disappear. 3D printing would contribute to new manufacturing models like rapid prototyping, local and personalized production. It will also enable single unit production relevant for the spare parts industry.

However, soon after the optimistic market projections of ABN AMRO, the 3D printer manufacturing business slowed down. Consumers are not that interested in printing simple plastic objects at home. Large-scale application of 3D printing is not yet an alternative for traditional production methods. In business, the perspectives have changed as well. The hype of local production has been superseded by a new hype called virtual stock, which enables you to produce on demand. This means that all you need to have is a blueprint, raw material, and a printing machine in order to stay in business. Holding stock is only necessary when products have to be available immediately.

No third industrial revolution

th-feature01-figure03The third industrial revolution isn’t happening right now. According to Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen this is mainly due to the high price of 3D printers. Nevertheless, 3D printing will have a real impact in some specific niche markets. Year after year, the number of professional printing solutions is growing. This is due to two trends: companies are continuing to invest in printing technology and the range of printable materials is expanding. For example, larger tech firms like HP still trust in the 3D printing business and are investing in the development of 3D printing technology.

3D printing started with what is called the Cartesian printing method: the print head follows straight lines, just like the old-fashioned dot-matrix printer. In modern versions, the print head is attached to a robot arm, which is able to move in all directions, the Delta principle. This method is used for the FabCity Campus printer, which was installed in Amsterdam during the Netherlands’ presidency of the EU.

Almost everything can be printed

The number of printable materials is increasing as well. Universe Architects is working with construction company BAM, to introduce a free form concrete printer that is capable of processing different types of sand. A few years ago, concrete printing was only possible with one specific type of sand, coming from the Dolomites, but Universe Architecture will start experiments with locally extracted sand from the North Sea. The 3D concrete printing machine has been developed by the Italian Enrico Dini. He has worked on printing installations that are capable of printing a house. Concrete printing with sand makes it possible to print larger constructions and offers the opportunity to produce form free, which is relatively new for the construction industry.

landscape house

Recent 3D printing innovations are all about printing solutions with different types of material. Nowadays, 3D printers are able to not only process plastics or concrete, but also glass, steel, clay and graphene. Moreover, biotech companies are experimenting with printing bone and muscle tissue. This is achieved using ’hydrogels’ – water based solutions containing living substances such as body cells. Whilst top chefs are enjoying working with printed chocolate or pasta, food engineers have more sophisticated expectations of ‘personalized food’ and the manufacturing of novel foodstuff that is made possible by 3D printing. Probably, 3D printing will bring us new opportunities in different industries. Innovation speed seems to be high, but in reality it may take quite some time to monetize new technologies.

Reprinting history

A beautiful example of 3D printing innovation is the NewPalmyra reconstruction project. After the destruction of the Roman city of Palmyra by IS, activists and archeologists started bringing together images of destructed objects. Teams are now working on reprinting historical objects using 3D software. They are even considering using the damaged objects themselves as raw material for the printers, by grinding them and re-using the granulate. Of course you could ask yourself whether it is possible to reconstruct history just by printing it. Then again, nobody complains about the historic center of Warsaw, a city that was rebuilt from the ground up after it was completely demolished during the Second World War.

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