Will 3D Printing ever be the Manufacturing of the Future?

Karl Hughes talks to leading industry professionals about a potential revolution that could see micro-manufacture spread throughout Western cities. Is the idea of print-on-demand commodities a reality, or should it be consigned to sci-fi replicators?

3D Printing Buildings

Imagine that you are preparing a dinner party, and you break one of your Great Aunt Sally’s 120 year old ceramic cups.  Now you’ve got a set of 7, and 8 guests coming to dinner.  “No worries,” you think, “I’ll just scan one of the others and print a new one before they arrive!”

It may sound like science fiction, but it’s probably not as far off as you think.  3D printing is finally moving away from specialized prototyping and reaching the consumer market.  I spoke with two leading minds in the industry about the potential they see in 3D printing, and the way that it will change the way goods are produced forever.

Bringing Local Manufacturing Back

“We are proving that it is possible to produce locally again,” Peter Weijmarshausen told me, “products made with 3D printing will only be made when and where they are needed.”

Weijmarshausen is the CEO of Shapeways, a startup that puts the power of the latest 3D printing technology in the hands of designers around the world.  The originally Dutch company has raised over $11 million in funding, and is raising more to open a brand new factory…in Long Island.  It’s not often that you hear of a manufacturing company opening up shop in the most populated island in the United States, but for Shapeways, it makes sense.

Shapeways’ primary users design and sell consumer goods.  As the most population dense city in the United States, New York is generally known for its wealth of designers and creative leaders.  For Shapeways, this means that they will be physically producing goods right in their customers’ backyards – something we haven’t seen much of in American manufacturing lately.

3D Printing Bikini

Designed by Continuum Fashion, the N12 Bikini if the first completely 3D-printed, ready-to-wear, item of clothing. Previous experiments into the use of 3D printing in clothing have remained purely experimental, haute couture items not available to purchase. This represents the first affordable design that will lead the way for more items fabricated using 3D printing technologies.

The Decline of Western Manufacturing

In 1962, arguably America’s richest period for production, 28% of our country’s jobs were in the manufacturing industry.  Due to competition abroad and increased automation, manufacturing now accounts for only 9% of American jobs. While the loss of these jobs is lamentable, a more frightening metric may be the rapid increase in imports.  Americans get 60% of the products they buy (up from 10% in 1960) from other countries, and their trade deficit has exploded.  All this means that more money is flowing out of the country as Americans produce fewer of their own products.

The Rise of Worldwide Logistics

Even if it’s cheaper to mass produce goods in China, they have to be shipped and then stored somewhere before they can be delivered to customers.  Any time that a product spends sitting on a shelf adds to its total cost, and when a product is not available to customers when they demand it, the company has lost or delayed potential profit.

Ideally, products would be produced and delivered to customers at the exact moment that the customer demands them (called Just in Time Logistics).  Since the transportation of finished goods across the globe will always take time (barring some unforeseen innovation in teleportation), the only way to solve this problem is to produce goods as close to the customer’s location as possible.

The MakerBot Thingomatic. Picture by makerbot on Flickr

The MakerBot Thingomatic. Picture by makerbot on Flickr

The Move from Physical to Digital

Dr. Lee Martin is an Engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, entrepreneur, inventor, and the author of Techonomics: The Theory of Industrial Evolution (2007).  In Techonomics, Martin presents his predictions about 3D printers:

“Humans commonly work in the two planar dimensions, length and width…Now that we have the mental tool of the computer for design, control, and operation, three-dimensional implementation of many technologies is emerging…Future advances in [3D printing] may lead to on-the-spot-manufacturing.”

I asked Martin about his prediction from 5 years ago, and where he thought 3D printers were headed now:

“The first time I saw a concept for a 3D printer, it was this crazy idea that the military had.  A machine would theoretically shovel dirt in, and finished weaponry would come out the other side,” he laughed.

While the dirt-to-gun machine isn’t quite a reality, Martin did see a lot of potential in the concept.  “Personal 3D printing has come a long way,” said Martin, “these home 3D printers are desktop cheap now,” referring to companies like MakerBot and Solidoodle, which both produce consumer-ready 3D printers for under $1500.

Martin also pointed to several industries where 3D printing will make a huge impact: auto and appliance repair. “These shops can’t keep a million tiny plastic and metal pieces in stock every day,” he pointed out, “even if the 3D printing is more expensive per part, the inventory is a big pain point.”

Many of these components are currently produced in other countries.  American companies now import 25% of their components as opposed to 17% in 1997, but the move to more localized production could change that.  Logistics used to be about physically moving products and raw materials around the world, but as we’ve seen in other industries (ie: news delivery, personal communications), more of that process will be done digitally with 3D printing.

3D Printing

Technological Limitations

I asked Weijmarshausen about the state of 3D printing, and where the technology will go in the future:

“Before Shapeways, 3D printing was primarily used for prototyping.  You had to send the manufacturer a specification, and they would manually email you a quote back.”

Weijmarshausen’s goal with Shapeways was to simplify that process.  Now, customers can place orders through the company’s website, and almost instantly know if the design is possible, and how much it will cost.  It takes about two weeks for Shapeways to print and deliver an item, but Weijmarshausen does not think it will take much to improve this delivery time, “In theory, not much is needed.  The [printing] process takes two days or less for plastics, but we’ve been fighting capacity and lead time problems.”

3D Printed Plane

Jim Scanlan of the University of Southampton and his team designed and built a 3D-printed plane in one week.

Looking Forward

As the demand for customized 3D printed products increases, the technology used in 3D printing will improve.  One of the biggest areas of innovation is the use of multiple materials in 3D printed products.  Shapeways currently prints items in 25 materials (from ceramics to plastics to metals), but each material has to be done on a separate machine.

Some companies are already using 3D printing to create electronic components, so as Weijmarshausen told me, “if you combine those concepts with the ones we use at Shapeways, you can see how you could customize whole products or appliances.”  Dr. Martin agreed that this would be the next key innovation for 3D printing. “There’s already research being done,” said Martin, and in fact one company, Object Connex, already has a working multi-material 3D printer.

 Shapeways 3D Printed Bikini

Shapeways claimed it is the first to print clothes commercially. Today the product is ready for launch and is available for sale through Continuum's Shapeways shop.

Even so, Martin and Weijmarshausen don’t believe that 3D printing will be right for every application. “There will still be a need for mass-produced goods,” said Weijmarshausen, “but custom-created items will be important.” Weijmarshausen also pointed out the environmental advantages to 3D printing, “Parts are made all over the world, and shipped all over the place before they get sold…with 3D printing, you just need to transport raw materials to distribution centers.”

It looks as though we’ll see 3D printing take over most consumer and specialty manufacturing processes in the next ten years.  With all the controversy surrounding issues like workers’ rights in developing countries, increasing fuel costs, and the inevitable decrease in price for 3D printers, it seems to be the next logical innovation in the manufacturing industry.  With the right distribution network, and a few more optimizations in the technology, 3D printing will bring locally produced goods back to our homes in a whole new way.