When Voxeljet, a German manufacturer of 3D, printers staged their initial public offering last month, its shares instantly doubled. Shares in ExOne Co, a maker of industrial 3D printers debuted on the Nasdaq in February at $23.66. They are currently trading at around $60. And if you’d had your money in one of the larger companies in the sector — 3D Systems Corp or Stratasys — you would have seen your investment rise by 100% or 70% respectively in the last year.
Analysts who don’t normally gush have tended to get uncharacteristically excited by 3D printing. Rob Enderle, one of the world’s foremost tech commentators, a man who was prescient about both the Facebook and Twitter IPOs, reckons that 3D is the real deal. “I’m calling this one of the big trends of the decade,” he says. “They are making massive strides advancing the technology almost monthly now. It has started to move into general retail, and mainstream vendors like HP are starting to ramp their efforts to market. We are still early but this could well be the next iPod-like wave.”
Others go further. Chris Andersen, the highly influential former editor of online tech bible Wired has just published a book called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. He believes we are living in a time comparable to the early eighties, just before computers broke into the mainstream consumer market.
The ‘Maker’ movement, he believes, is harnessing innovations in 3D printing which will ultimately liberate manufacturing from its traditional factory setting. ‘The idea of a factory is...changing,’ He writes. ‘Just as the web democratised innovation in bits, a new class of “rapid prototyping” technologies, from 3D printers to laser cutters, is democratising innovation in atoms. You think the last two decades were amazing? Just wait.’
In a major report published last month, management consultants Gartner predicted that worldwide shipments of 3D printers priced at under $100,000 would grow 49% this year. Next year, they foresee 75% growth, and 100% the year after that.
“The 3D printer market has reached its inflection point,” says Pete Basiliere, research director at the company. “While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results.”
The curious thing about 3D printing is that the core technology isn’t new. The first 3D printed part will be 30 years old next year. A slew of improvements to that technology however, together with the expiration of a key patent late in the last decade, has seen the costs of 3D printing drop like a stone. Ten years ago, you would have struggled to find a machine for under €80,000. These days, you can pick on e up on Amazon for around €1,200, and kit-built machines are available for around half that.
In the same way that an inkjet printer transforms an online document into a printed page, a 3D printer takes a digital file and turns it into a physical object. 3D printing used to be called ‘additive manufacturing’, an unsexy phrase that nonetheless comes closer to describing what actually goes on. The software slices the virtual 3D image into thin layers, each of which is sent to the printer, which then ‘adds’ layer to layer to recreate the image onscreen. The crux of the whole process, the thesis on which Andersen is building his revolution is this: If you can design it, you can build it.
“The most interesting applications for 3D printing right now are in high-tech industries and business,” says tech writer Kyle Chayka.
“In manufacturing, it’s letting companies produce and test complex parts quickly and easily.”
In the industrial sphere, 3D holds out the possibility of losing the production line; small improvements in design do not require a complete retooling of the production process. Plus it’s vastly less wasteful. According to some estimates, 3D printing uses as little as one tenth of the amount of material used in traditional manufacturing processes. It allows the creation of more complex shapes, delivering more efficient designs both quickly and cheaply.
“The domestic market is a big growth area as well,” says Chayka, “with home users buying 3D printers to make their own furniture and accessories, or to manufacture household goods that they otherwise would have had to go to a store for.”
It is of course the expected arrival of low-cost consumer 3D printers that is fuelling much of the hype around the technology. “In the next 18 months,” says Gartner’s Basiliere, “we foresee consumers moving from being curious about the technology to finding reasons to justify purchases as price points, applications and functionality become more attractive.” Recent research from Michigan Technical University reported that households could save up to $2,000 annually by 3D printing products instead of buying them. Researchers listed 20 everyday objects which could be easily printed out. They included mobile phone accessories, a shower head, a garlic press and, curiously, a spoon-rest.
Dr Conor MacCormack is CEO of Mcor technologies, a Dunleer firm which is at the cutting edge of 3D printing technology. He explains that their printers are used by the likes of architects and product designers to create presentation models and prototypes. The key advantage for these professionals is that these models can be created instantly and at a fraction of the price of old ‘subtractive’ manufacturing methods.
Nor is it just about scale models. “There’s a surgeon in Belgium,” says McCormack, “who uses our machine for doing facial reconstruction. He prints out the skull from a CT scan and then uses that to plan the surgery.”
The medical applications of the technology are perhaps the most exciting. Earlier this year, a researcher in Belgium printed a new jawbone for an 83-year-old woman who had been suffering from a chronic bone infection. The synthetic bone was surgically implanted and now the woman is able to chew, speak and breathe normally.
Two years ago, doctors at the University of Michigan saved the life of a premature infant by implanting a 3D printed lung split into his windpipe. Doctors used computer modelling to match the splint with the infant’s windpipe and printed it using a kind of biodegradable polyester. Three weeks after the operation, the child no longer needed a ventilator to breathe.
Pushing even deeper into the realms of science fiction, Chinese scientists have begun 3D printing ears, livers and kidneys with specialised 3D bio printers which use living tissue instead of plastic. According to reports, it takes researchers at Hangzhou Dianzi University an hour to produce a mini-liver sample on their custom-made bioprinter. They believe that fully functional printed organs will be available within the next two decades.
While these applications are impressive, not everyone is buying into the second industrial revolution idea. For one thing, it’s worth remembering that the sector is very much in its infancy, generating revenues of just €2.2 billion last year, of which only 28% was derived from finished parts of products, the rest being designs and prototypes. This means that 3D printing has an active role in less than 0.01% of global manufacturing. The hype is based almost entirely on a potential that may or may not be realised.
In an interview published early last year, David Reis, the chief executive of one of the biggest 3D printer making companies, Stratasys, said that he didn’t think his technology would ever replace traditional manufacturing, and that it would be ten years before an ordinary consumer would be able to print out a replacement part for his fridge, let alone print out his own bike or mobile phone.
The other point to make is that some of the applications are particularly contentious.
In May 2013, the first printed gun was fired at a test location in the Texas desert. It was designed and printed by Cody Wilson, a 25 year old University of Texas law student. In 2012, he founded an organisation called Defense Distributed. According to Kyle Chayka, author of The Printed Gun, How 3D Printing is Challenging Gun Control, the sole mission of the organisation is to develop a freely available, open-source blueprint for a firearm that could be made entirely on an affordable 3D printer.
“Wilson’s plan,” Chayka writes, “would allow anyone with a 3D printer to build their own firearm, avoiding the United States’ already loose system of identity and background checks meant to prevent deadly weapons from falling into the wrong hands. It would dismantle any efforts at gun control, proving top-down regulation useless.”
When Wilson posted the blueprints for his gun online last year they were promptly downloaded more than 100,000 times before the US State Department asked him to take them down. Wilson may now face fines, or worse, for contravening foreign arms trade regulations. Nor is it just a one-man revolution. Over summer 2013, an Israeli TV crew, just to prove a point, sneaked a 3D printed gun into the Israeli parliament and pointed it at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Inevitably, there’s also an intellectual property rights issue brewing in the wings. “3D printing is still outside of the mainstream spotlight,” says Chayka. “As the technology enters the household sphere and more people use it to replicate copyrighted items like fashion accessories or industrial designs, I think it’ll attract more negative attention in the form of RIAA-style lawsuits against users or maybe even 3D printing companies.”
In his book, Makers, Clive Andersen invokes Karl Marx and talks about how the technology has ‘democratised the means of production’. Much of the discourse around 3D printing has that revolutionary flavour; the demise of the factory, the rise of the ‘maker’ class, homemade firearms, but whatever about the future of 3D printing, the present is frequently a little more mundane.
If you shop at the UK’s Asda chain, you can now get yourself scanned, and the following week, you can pick up a 3D model of yourself to take home and keep. In a press release, the company said, ‘Evolving well beyond simply filling frames with photographs of friends and family, 3D printed ‘mini-me’ figures will add a whole new dimension to shoppers’ mantelpieces and the lifelike models are also expected to be popular as personalised wedding cake toppers, and you could even have a model of your family pet!”
Viva la revolución.
Asmall Irish company based in the town of Dunleer in Co Louth is shaping up to become one of the leading global players in the 3D printing business.
Co-founder and CEO of Mcor Technologies, Conor MacCormack, says that the company’s mission is to become the market leader in low cost, full colour, eco-friendly 3D printing. “Our printer is the same as all the other 3D printers out there in that it takes digital data and coverts that into a physical object, but how we differentiate ourselves is that our printer runs on regular office paper.”
The vast majority of comparable printers on the market use expensive plastics and complex resins that don’t biodegrade. Mr MacCormack says Mcor printer’s use of paper and water-based adhesives and ink not only gives it a cost advantage over its competitors, it also makes it the most environmentally friendly 3D printer available. It also prints in full, photo-realistic colour.
The printer is the brainchild of brothers Conor and Fintan McCormack. Both have engineering backgrounds and worked in the aerospace industry in the US, which is where they became aware of emerging 3D technologies 10 years ago. They gave up their jobs and returned home in 2005, then spent the best part of two years locked away in a garage in Dunleer, trying to invent a new kind of printer.
“The only printer you could get in Ireland at the time cost around €80,000, and the running costs were very high too. It was nearly more expensive than gold to print out an object. Our goal was to make a machine that had zero running costs. Paper is the most accessible material you can get your hands on, so that’s why we went in that direction.”
By 2008, they had made sufficient progress to open up a sales pipeline, and Conor’s wife Deirdre, who has a marketing and advertising background, came on board.
“We got the news out that we were developing a paper-based 3D printer and got two million hits to our website in 10 days, and 1,800 sales enquiries. We didn’t have a product but we knew that if we could build this machine, that people would want it.”
Paper is not only cheap, it’s also a lot more durable than you would think. “People have misconceptions about what a paper structure is going to be like, they think it’s going to be origami or papier mache, but paper in compression is extremely strong. We have parts that are used for bottle openers, parts that are used for small sheet metal presses.”
These days, the company’s key customers include product designers, architects and the education sector.
While Mcor operates primarily in the commercial sector, a recent partnership arrangement with office supply company Staples gives ordinary consumers access to Mcor printers. You can now upload your file to the Staples Office Centre, they print it out and you can either drop by to pick it up, or they will post it out.
Mcor has transformed itself from a pure RnD entity into a full production company in the past 18 months. Every two weeks they are now shipping the same amount of printers that were dispatched in all of 2012.
“We have the very high class problem of trying to fulfil this massive demand. We’ve doubled our employees every year for the last three years and would see that trend continuing for the foreseeable future.”
Current employment numbers stand at 50, but MacCormack says they could really do with twice that number.
“It’s great to be hiring high class, highly skilled PhDs.We still have a very strong RnD focus here, a very clear road map of our next product. That’s what’s driving everybody. We’re very excited for the future.”
The one thing that 3D printing doesn’t seem to have any trouble making is hype. Unfortunately, buying a 3D printer does not mean you’ll never have to go to the shops again.
But if you’re in the business of making things, you can’t help but be drawn to the applications. Mark Rowan runs Inspire 3D, a bureau service which allows you to upload your designs to the company site. Inspire will then print out your model and send it back to you. “There’s a lot of hype in the media about what it can do,” he says. “People come to me with a notion that you can make anything and they always expect it to be cheaper than conventional manufacturing, but it isn’t always so.”
For those who take the time to understand the process however, the advantages are there. “Just recently we prototyped a product for a company down south. They simply sent us the file, I put it through the software, calculated the price and once the payment cleared, it went into the production queue. It all happened in less than a day.”
Because he’s dealing primarily with early adaptors, Rowan spends a lot of his time explaining how it works, what’s possible and what’s not. He’s currently collaborating with the craft council, teaching the next generation of craftspeople about digital fabrication.
“The things you can do in jewellery are unbelievable,” he says. “You can actually print in gold and silver. There are machines in the UK that use gold and silver powder to 3D print jewellery and models.”
If you want to join this emerging maker movement, the costs of 3D printing are falling all the time. Inspire 3D stock the Up range of 3D printers, which start from €1,750. Maplins offers a build-it-yourself 3D printer. The Velleman K8200 3D Printer Kit retails at €899. Alternatively, log on to Amazon for alternatives for around £1,000. Peachy Printer, a development project that launched on Kickstarter, is promising a device that will retail for under $100.
At thingiverse.com, you can download a wide range of designs and knock them out at home. There are over 100,000 3D models available for download, ranging from toys, bottles, sculpture, jewellery and any number of handy little household devices. New designs are being uploaded by the Thingiverse community of makers all time. They’re open source and free.
There’s also shapeways.com, a Dutch firm which operates a shop where 3D Printing enthusiasts can offer the things they make for sale. Right now, you can pick up a skull tobacco pipe for €32.95, an antler light switch for €31.96 or a pair of starfish kanga earrings for €52.70. Many of the designs are stunning, and quite unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.
An ongoing exhibition at the Science Museum in London gives some idea of the breadth of what 3D printers can do. The exhibit features more than 600 3D printed objects ranging from toys to sculpture to replacement teeth. JOHN HEARNE gives some of the more surprising applications of the technology.
The European Space Agency recently unveiled printed parts made from metal which it says can withstand temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Celsius. 3D printing typically takes plastic as its input material, so the capacity to produce in a sturdier medium opens up a world of alternative possibilities, which the ESA says makes these parts ‘fit for space and the most demanding applications on earth’. NASA, meanwhile, plans to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station in order to set up what they’re calling a ‘mini factory’. The idea is that astronauts would no longer have to carry additional tools or spare parts, but could print out what they need as they need it.
Leon McCarthy is a 12-year-old boy from Massachusetts, who has been missing the fingers on his left hand since birth. Traditional prosthetics make life easier for someone in Leon’s position, but they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Leon’s father Paul went looking for a cheaper alternative and found a YouTube video uploaded by an American inventor called Ivan Owen. Two years before, Owen had designed and 3D printed a hand prostheses for a five-year-old girl. Because Owen had chosen not to patent his work, but instead made the design freely available online, Leon’s father was able to download the design and adapt it for his son’s use. What he eventually printed out works perfectly, and though the printer cost $2,000, the materials for the prosthetic hand only cost $10.
Behrokh Khoshnevis is director of the manufacturing engineering graduate program at the University of Southern California.
He’s developing a process which he calls Contour Crafting which uses 3D printing technology to build entire houses. Motivated by the fact that millions in developing countries don’t have adequate access to shelter, Khoshnevis (below) says that the giant 3D printers his team is developing will build a 2,500 square foot house in under 20 hours. Moreover, he’s not talking about the structure alone. The machine will also complete the electrical work, plumbing, tiling and painting.
Hollywood’s special effects people have embraced 3D printing as an alternative to the traditional methods of road-testing concepts and live action possibilities. Instead of time-consuming clay modelling, 3D models can be printed, concepts run by directors and producers, and if tweaks are needed, you don’t have to restart from scratch. Instead, you simply adjust the design onscreen and hit print. 3D printers were also used in the production of Iron Man II. The special effects people scanned Robert Downey Jr’s hands and used the digital image generated to create a more comfortable suit.
A collaboration between scientists and an Australian racehorse trainer promises customised horseshoes and the hope of a better performance at the racecourse. Researchers at Australia’s National Science Agency, CSIRO scanned a horse’s hooves, and using the data to create a digital prototype of the horseshoes, 3D printed four titanium shoes. The advantage isn’t a more comfortable shoe, but the fact that titanium has a significant weight advantage over traditional aluminium shoes, which make for a faster horse.
3D printing offers to revolutionise disaster relief logistics. Instead of having to source a range of supplies from a range of sources, you boil your cargo down to a 3D printer and a bale of raw materials. 3D printers are already being used in medicine to create devices like tracheal valves, splits, prostheses, crutches, umbilical cord clamps and even blood vessels. Some 3D printers currently run on solar power. As the cost of printers fall and the technology improves, these instant factories will become a viable alternative to traditional disaster relief solutions.