At Techonomy, we’re fascinated by the potential of 3D printing technology (also known as additive manufacturing) to transform domestic manufacturing by creating efficiencies and opportunities for producers both large and small, from industrial fabricators to DIY makers.
For answers to all our 3D printing questions, we spoke with Terry Wohlers, industry analyst, author, and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. He told us about the future of 3D printing, industry obstacles, and whether or not we will someday see entire houses constructed by 3D-printed layers of concrete.
How far do you think 3D printing can go in transforming manufacturing?
The sky is the limit. It’s going to be difficult to find an industry that’s not impacted by this technology—if not in the production of final parts, then in prototyping and testing of new designs. Now we’re seeing the transition from purely a modeling and prototyping device to one that is used to manufacture products. That’s the new frontier—and where the money is.
This technology will develop to become the most important, most strategic, and most used manufacturing process ever.
Do you think it will become universally adopted?
In terms of product development, it’s quite universal today; in terms of manufacturing, it is not. I don’t think that we’ll see the average family running a 3D printer at home. They’ll still benefit from it: they’ll order parts from the web, but, I don’t think it will become as popular as a personal computer.
Which industries do you think stand to benefit the most from the advance of 3D printing technology, and which will adopt it first?
Aerospace has really been a main driver in pushing certification of parts, materials, and designs going into aircrafts, initially in plastics. Now we’re seeing companies like GE, Honeywell, and Airbus pushing ahead with metals, so we’ll see 3D-printed metal parts on aircraft very soon. In fact, one has been flying on a Honeywell-built aircraft for two years, in its certification phase. GE aviation said that they’ll be manufacturing a fuel injector with metal-based additive manufacturing by next year, and they’ll be in full production in the thousands by 2015. These companies are just getting started.
The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute is the first of what could be 15 innovation institutes across the United States. [Wohlers Associates is an NAMII member.] The Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce pooled their money to fund the first institute dedicated to additive manufacturing. Agencies in Washington are beginning to understand the potential impact of 3D printing for national defense and energy savings and transportation systems; they’re looking at security and intelligence as well.
How can U.S. entrepreneurs take advantage of 3D printing technology?
Right now, if someone has an idea and wants to start a little business, it’s very easy to do that; you don’t even have to own equipment because you can outsource it.
For example, you can set up a website and allow designers to upload their designs, and outsource the manufacturing. It could be in jewelry or lighting designs, or some niche market. It is all about design. With additive manufacturing you can make changes along the way, produce a lot of variety, and you can make only a few but still make money. You don’t have to worry about manufacturing 500,000 and only selling 100,000.
Are there sectors that will be slower to adopt 3D printing for manufacturing?
It’s hard to know how big or fast these machines will be in 20 years. Right now the biggest parts 3D printers can make are about one meter in one dimension, and they’re not as fast as traditional approaches. Initially we are looking at industries and markets where the products are relatively low volume, high value, and complex. That is why aerospace, medical, dental, motor sports, and some consumer products like apparel are adopting this. But within those industries you have projects that are well outside the capabilities of these systems.
Will we need to shift education and skills training for the new manufacturing workforce?
Absolutely. Additive manufacturing systems are different than running traditional equipment, particularly on the front-end and back-end of the process. Once you start a job, it is like watching grass grow, just layer after layer. The front end is about getting the job set up, and even earlier than that is the designing and software. That’s where there is a big challenge. They’re introducing this technology at high schools, universities, and community colleges, but my fear is that they’re going to teach it as a prototyping tool. The next frontier is using it as a manufacturing tool.
It’s not difficult to get young people jazzed and excited about this technology because it’s cool stuff and it applies to so many disciplines. I could envision multidisciplinary labs where many departments within a school share the lab for building parts.
We’ve seen a 3D printed motorcycle. What are the boundaries of scale? Will we see 3D printed buildings?
At the University of Southern California they’ve come up with a system called contour crafting that sets up at the worksite. The system comes in pieces; you assemble the gantry system, put down concrete layer-by-layer, and build a house. If you were to take that to the next step, you could include conduit for wiring and plumbing and so forth. It could even be multi-material. Is that practical in the next 20 years? I don’t think so. Thirty years? Maybe.