September 15, 2014
Expectations and excitement are high for 3D printing as the pace of innovation hits hyper drive. Although the concepts and technologies of 3D printing have existed for two to three decades, recent progress has reduced the cost of printers by orders of magnitude, expanded the choice of materials, and widened the domains where 3D printing is proving useful, almost on a daily basis. All indications suggest the technology is heading towards an inflection point that could result in rapid and rampant adoption that will disrupt industries and redistribute power.
Despite its enormous potential, the challenges of 3D printing facing the industry are many. Rapid prototyping, which has been the industry’s center of gravity, isn’t enough to change the game. The industry needs to pivot to printing fully functional and finished products with speed and quality. Based on our research to date, the future of the industry rests on addressing three key concerns:
Challenge: Improving performance characteristics of printers while reducing costs. These characteristics include speed, resolution, automation, ease of use (no tinkering), quality, reliability, and repeatability.
- Printers generally take hours to run through a print cycle. What are the prospects for increasing the speeds of the printers? Are there physical limits to how fast the printers can become?
- Most printers print with a single material. How quickly will industry advance towards handling multiple materials in a printer? Are certain methods more conducive than others?
- Most printers print a single passive product. How quickly is industry making progress to print complete systems?
Multi-material capability and material diversity
Challenge: Improving the ability to handle multiple materials, more types of materials and mixing materials while printing.
- What are the prospects for a rapid expansion of material choices that rival traditional manufacturing?
- What methods and standards are needed so that designers can mix materials and predict performance after printing?
- What is the lifecycle of invention and use of new materials in 3D printing?
Printing finished products
Challenge: Enabling the printing of fully functional and active systems that potentially incorporate many modules, such as embedded sensors, batteries, electronics, MEMs, and others.
- How will software make printers automated and easier to use?
- What role will software play in improving the quality, reliability and speed of printers?
- What role will software play in facilitating standards and intellectual property protections so that 3D printers can be used commercially?
Innovations are underway on all these fronts. But, how quickly can the industry advance and address these concerns? What do you think is holding the industry back? Share your thoughts in the comment section.