Almost unnoticed, revolutionary 3D production technologies have emerged without any meaningful input from big players. Instead, the initiatives have come from researchers, small start-ups and hobbyists in their garages who experimented with printing three-dimensional stuff.
Still, 3D printing is not without history. Long before the internet changed the world, laser-based processes for industrial applications had been developed, e.g. for the manufacture of prototypes and models to be used in the production of limited numbers of work pieces and building components.
Different to the injection moulding processes, 3D printing bypasses the labour-intensive set-up of jigs, together with the various processes of cutting, lathing and drilling. The 3D revolution’s social and economic repercussions are making themselves felt. Especially in the field of tool system technology, construction component production, medical device technology and the consumer goods industry, 3D print technology occupies an immensely important place.
Three-D printing not only supplants traditional processes, but accelerates innovation by the instant creation of solid prototypes and tangible templates has numerous benefits.
In the consumer space, unit costs of mass-produced articles will always stay below those of customized manufacture, yet at the very margins, some share of the manufacturing process may well be taken over by the consuming public itself.
It would hardly be a detriment to the economy, since these unaffiliated manufacturers still need 3D technology besides materials and support….at the same time creating brand new lines of business, e.g. printing services for those who are reluctant to invest in a 3D printer themselves. We all recall the unreal rates a square foot of digital printing on fabrics commanded back in its early years.
Hewlett Packard was the first of the large press manufacturers to enter the 3D printer business. Between 2010 and 2012, the company struck an alliance with Israeli-American firm Stratasys.
The result were devices with the names HP Designjet 3D and HP Designjet Colour 3D, which are no longer on the market.
Meg Whitmann, HP’s CEO, says: “Three-D printers are still in their infancy. It’s a great opportunity and we are very much committed [to them]. By the middle of 2014, we will have something to show.”
The strength of HP’s conviction may be somewhat debatable, though, since Whitman stressed that actual revenue flow from the sector to the bottom line is a long way off.
Indeed, patience is the order of the day, not the least because the costs of efficient 3D printers remain out of reach for many, as is the raw printing material, the variety and selection of which still leaves much to be desired.
In addition, the current machines run at an agonizingly slow pace. Whithman described it saying: “To print a bottle may take eight to 10 hours. All quite interesting, but it feels like watching grass grow.”
Nevertheless, 3D printing is a revolution of production technology. Right now, 3D printing is mostly limited to CAD supported laser cutters, lathes or injection moulding machines, yet new ideas have benefited all industries over time.
Time is now
Incorporating 3D printing into the canon of printing technologies as a fourth pillar next to letterpress, offset and digital print is the right thing to do; no half-way measures, please.
Sing its praises in high schools, vocational training classes, professional associations, and especially, companies.
The time is now to define and hone business models, for as you sow, so you shall reap.
Getting your feet wet in 3D printing is relatively easy. Building sets and apparatuses for beginners can be had for around $ 600. Professional machines sell from $ 6000. But these machines, used in industrial applications, are under a great deal of pricing pressure. Analogous to 2D printing equipment, three categories of machinery have also emerged in the 3D sector: for home use, for professionals, and for industrial application.
Two dozen manufacturers are offering solutions for the press floor. Most of them were inspired by the RepRap project, originally conceived by Adrian Bowyer, a professor for evolutionary research at Bath University in England.
RepRap stands for Replicating RapidPrototyper and is a 3D printing press, the blueprint of which Bowyer had published under a GNU general public licence with the goal to achieve rapid proliferation. Vendors such as Ultimaker and Makibox follow in its footsteps. The best-known American maker of 3D printers, Makerbot used to be a non-profit organisation. Since 2013, it is a subsidiary of Stratasys.
The English manufacturer Bits from Bytes was also bought out. The company started with the 3D printer RapMan, a commercial version of the open source hardware RepRap Darwin.
In October 2010, it was taken over by 3D Systems in the US. Resources for research and production at its main plant are at the limit of their capacities; for those reasons, 3D Systems plans an additional site.
World leader for industrial applications in the sector is EOS GmbH, based in Krailling near Munich.