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Additive Manufacturing: The Industrial Revolution in 3D

We live in a world where unlocking mysteries are becoming commonplace. Imagine scientists replicating DNA sequences through the use of 3D printing in the fight against cancer? Sound like science fiction? Hardly.

No longer reliant upon plastics alone, today’s 3D printers can produce fully functional components out of materials ranging from human cartilage to metal. The printers can precisely render the most complex designs for almost any application, from medical to lighting. The ability to accurately manufacture custom parts and prototypes quickly and cost-effectively is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. Indeed, NASA is even investigating whether they can be used to render pizza out of shelf-stable pantry items. Geneticists, like J. Craig Venter, even believe we will soon have the ability to print DNA material as well.

By no means a new technology, 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) was invented in 1984. But since then, the technology has rapidly changed and grown. A recent McKinsey report notes that 3D printing is at a “tipping point,” poised to “emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications.”

Some of the advantages of 3D printing are obvious:  faster product-development, fully customizable components and lower cost of entry (particularly for small manufacturers aiming at a specific niche).

With 3D printing, manufacturers can inexpensively create components and prototypes, and even decentralize manufacturing hubs and offer their customers nearly limitless designs according to their unique needs. Motorola recently began employing 3D printing technology to customize its smartphones for consumers.

One of the less obvious advantages of 3D printing is the ability to manufacture products with a mix of materials that can meet precise specifications while at the same time minimizing costs and reducing or eliminating scrap.

For these reasons, manufacturers are beginning to embrace 3D printing technology in rendering new designs and customizing components. Recently, Local Motors and Oak Ridge National Laboratory signed a new partnership to develop and deliver technology to produce the world's first 3D printed vehicle. NASA is also getting on board (beyond pizza) with 3D printing, envisioning its use onboard spacecraft, enabling astronauts to manufacture and repair tools as needed. GE is creating stronger, lighter, cheaper aviation parts using 3D printing. Korea’s Hankook Tire has developed a prototyping system that uses 3D printing technology to create perfect full color models that can be assessed for form and function. A recent study conducted by Stratasys and Nypro Healthcare demonstrated the ability to create product prototypes from the same material that is used in high volume production.

Another promise of the additive manufacturing technology is the ability to enable customization and personalization of the look and feel of the products they buy to suit individual personalities, tastes, physical traits and budget constraints. Imagine, for example, being able to print a grip of a tool or a handle for a lawn mower to suit your individual desires. Beyond that, some individuals have used 3D printers to manufacture prostheses for a level of customization and at a lower price than was ever previously achievable.

The major players in 3D printers are 3D Systems, Stratasys, ExOne, Arcam and voxeljet. While recent uncertainty in the market, fueled by a negative report from Citron, has hit the stock prices of all of the players, the overall forecast still looks bright. According to Wohlers Associates the 3D printing primary market has grown at a CAGR of 25 percent since 1989 and a 14 percent CAGR during the last five years. More to the point, they project the 3D market growing at about 24 percent CAGR from 2013-2021 to become a $15 billion industry.

Growth in the industry will likely make the entry-level technology cheaper and more accessible, driving the trend that even President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union Address. How are you using 3D technology to improve your products or increase their value? If you haven’t started using 3D printing yet, what is stopping you… and how will you get in on the game?

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