3D Printing: Fact vs. Fiction

3D printing (a.k.a., additive manufacturing) has lately been a hot theme in engineering and manufacturing, and it’s still in its infancy. I’ve attended several product lifecycle management (PLM) and computer-aided design (CAD) conferences lately, and all had flashy displays from 3D printer providers, such as Stratasys or 3D Systems.
Some impressive showings include ExOne, for its binder jetting technology, currently employed by Ford to create part prototypes, and Organovo for 3D bioprinting technology (printing cellulose “scaffolds” onto which one can then spray living cells) to create functional human tissue. The recent advancements in 3D printing technology have even sparked the novel concept of 4D printing, with the fourth axis being time (and perhaps a different material on top of the original).
The concept of self-assembling materials by Skylar Tibbits (in collaboration with MIT) was presented at Autodesk University 2013, and I am still trying to wrap my head around it (see the TED Talk). The big idea is to create objects that can change after they are printed, making them self-adapting, for example, after a material absorbs water and changes its properties. The act of printing is no longer the end of the creative process but merely a waypoint.

For example,  pipes could be developed to sense the need to expand or contract, or to pump water on their own.  And if 4D printing could, say, eliminate potholes in cold climates, it would revolutionize the world.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Yet, some pundits think that the recent market optimism about the “Next Industrial Revolution” potential of 3D printing is overhyped. Uncertain growth potential in the consumer market, limited pragmatic applications, and a lack of mass-production ability are the reasons that keep many folks remain skeptical. 3D printing is not expected to garner a meaningful share of the global manufacturing industry in the near term, with the total market size of 3D printing, according to Wohlers Associates, estimated to grow to $6 billion by 2017 (from $2 billion in 2012), still miniscule compared with the conventional manufacturing space ($93 billion).
I think that 3D printing is no different than any other technology transition—it will be great for some applications, but it is unlikely to become the primary method or mode of delivery. For certain spare parts or some custom parts, this could be a great solution. Unless you make more money on spare parts than on the original finished product, it could be beneficial to print spare parts instead of wasting production resources.
3D printing will not fully (or significantly) replace traditional ways of manufacturing any time soon, but it will become important. Look at traditional printers as an analogy—the publishing industry still needs to use big and expensive machines to mass produce newspapers, magazines, books, etc. but many small printing and publishing jobs are now done by a printer sitting on your desk. Dear readers, what are you thoughts and opinions about the 3D printing future?
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