April 11, 2014


3D Printing ? How close are we from the next Industrial Revolution

3D printing is observing a strong market trend and being perceived as the next industrial revolution. When someone hears it first time, it sounds like printing on a paper which will have 3D effect!  Well, interestingly that’s not the case; it's nothing to do with printing on a paper!! 3D Printing rather entails creating (which is said as printing) an actual 3D object from a machine, which is termed as 3D printer.

Well, so 3D printer will print a 3D model file that you have created through a modeling/CAD (Computer Aided Design) software like OpenSCAD, SolidWorks, Google Sketchup, and many more… Once a model file is created, it’s then loaded (opened) with a Slicing software or printer control software, which then interacts with the connected 3D printer and prints the object layer-by-layer.

They say that if you can model it, we can print it! So sounds very interesting... that means you can design and print a toy, a cover of smart phone, jewelry items, even Food, medical items, aero equipment,… the possibilities are limitless!!

Someone of my colleague recently joked with me - that if I enter my old phone, will the printer print a new phone for me? J So people are seeing the technology in a way that it probably can generate anything automatically!

Talking about 3D printers, there are two categories of 3D printers – Industrial and Consumer.

Though consumer printers that can be connected and printed through a PC are coming up, rates are getting reduced... you can have a 3D printer in less than 1000 USD.
CES event in January this year demonstrated multiple 3d printer shows from different manufacturer companies, including food printing...

Recently a boy in India made his own 3D printer. Like the printers that come up are in 2 categories - assembled or DIY (Do it yourself) kit. DIY is a cheaper option but then you should have the capability to assemble it well...

Talking about market trends, market size is growing... Per Gartner report, 3D printer market valued at just $3 billion will grow to more than $5.7 billion by 2017. Consumer and enterprise 3D printer shipments are growing at 95.4% and revenue at 81.9% from 2012 through 2017.

So concept & technology is indeed interesting, and as we can see, it’s already happening and catching up… However has 3D printing already come to mainstream or is it just round the corner? Well, I don’t think so!!

Most of people in India are not even familiar with the term! Right now it’s primarily being used for prototyping work in industries or doing some experiments, but not for mass production or for a day-to-day consumer work.

Few key challenges at present that are major bottleneck in getting the technology into mainstream –

1. Slow speed
2. Quite Expensive
3. Complexity of modeling software
4. IP & Copyright Challenge

At the moment, most printers are too slow and too expensive to run to be economical. Making objects on consumer printers is slow and expensive, and unable to produce objects made from multiple materials! To print a solid plastic apple on MakerBot’s $2,000 consumer printer, for instance, takes seven hours and costs $50 in supplies, so it’s no competition for cheap plastic goods made in China.

At present 3D printing is good and well applied for prototyping and short runs, but when it comes to mass production with thousands or millions of units; it cannot match the traditional manufacturing processes for speed and cost. So that’s one of the big challenges in getting it in mainstream.

On the cost aspect, printer cost varies based on print material that is used - plastic (ABS, PLA) are the most common one and are cheap one's while the one with powder and resin are costly.

Other challenge is that it’s not as easy to use and make designs with 3D modeling software. 3D modeling/CAD software is usually complex for a normal user to create a design and turn them into files that can be printed. Usually it needs CAD designers to create right 3D Design.

The rapid emergence of this technology will also create major challenges in relation to intellectual property theft. Gartner predicts that by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in IP globally.

However event though there are challenges and issues and 3D printing has been surrounded by hype and a certain sci-fi mystique, now it has begun to prove itself as a viable technology for both consumer and general business use. There are multiple things happening with new areas applying 3D printing, new players emerging, OEMs releasing new and cheaper model of 3D printers, multiple key players building a strong eco system.

Two major players in 3D printer maker - MakerBot and 3D systems have recently announced printers in range of $1000 - (replicator mini and cube 3) and guess what that these cheap consumer printers are equipped with a set of advanced technical stuff like monitoring / managing from your smart phone, cloud access, and so on… “Our main focus is on creating a machine that’s powerful enough for a pro to use, but affordable enough that everyone else can, too,” says CEO Bre Pettis of MakerBot.

Microsoft and Adobe are other two software giants who recently entered into this area and have launched their products supporting 3D printing. MS Windows 8.1 and set of associated software, and Adobe launched Photoshop CC with 3D printing support.

Key objective that Microsoft and Adobe are targeting is to make 3D printing as seamless and accessible as it is for 2D printing.

If you don't have 3D printer - guess what there are a set of 3D printing online service portals (Shapeways or Sculpteo) - where you upload your model files and they will print it based on your configuration and details provided and will courier you. In addition - there are already a set of model files available on their portal which you can select and give a print request.

Another very interesting aspect - you can make replica of an object – via a 3D scan camera first and then printing that scanned file via a 3D printer.

Mobility support for access and control of 3D printing via smart phones is already a feature in pipeline for consumer segment.

At present Mechanical engineering prototyping is a key area where it is being used majorly. Today customers (mechanical) want to see end to end prototypes – where not only model files are designed via modeling software rather printed and tested with 3D printers – so as they can be more assured of the design created.

So even though technology is not into mainstream today, gradually as an eco-system gets build up - it will see stronger adoption and will keep getting there. So we can keep an eye on this interesting upcoming technology and see how it gradually comes into mainstream both for consumers and enterprises and makes our next industrial revolution!! To know more about innovative manufacturing solutions, visit HCL's Manufacturing unit.


Image ref.: Cube 3D printer by 3D Systems