Will 3D Printers Cannibalize RP Systems?

Published in the July/September 1997 issue Prototyping Technology International, UK & International Press Copyright 1998
by Terry T. Wohlers

A 3D printer, also called a concept modeler, is a less-costly and less-capable variation of RP technology. Vendor companies are positioning them as machines that can give you a quick and inexpensive model early in the design cycle. 3D printers use a method of building parts by layer using CAD solid model data, the same as conventional RP systems. As they both build models and prototype parts, there is inevitable overlap between these two classes of machine technology.

As these low-cost systems develop, could 3D printers make it difficult for companies to sell high-end RP systems at high-end prices? When you compare the cost of a 3D printed model to a conventional RP model, the difference can be dramatic. Owners of 3D printers pay about $25 to $35 for a small (50 x 50 x 75mm) part. This estimate includes material, machine depreciation, system maintenance, and labor. If you build the same part using an SLA-250, for example, the cost is in the $60 to $90 range.

Turn-around time is also a consideration. High-end RP equipment is usually located at a central site in a company. If you want to have a part built, you must send an STL file to this site and they will schedule the work. Getting a part back can take a few days to more than a week, depending on the workload and the efficiency of the operation. The small size, and the clean, safe, and quiet operation of 3D printers, make them suitable for operation close to the recipient. They can run in the same room next to the CAD systems, copiers, and fax machines. The end-user and machine are not separated by distance and time. This makes it easy for the designer to start a job one day and touch the completed model the same or next day.

It may be surprising to some that more than one-third of all RP models are used mainly as visual aids, according to a recent study by Wohlers Associates, Inc. These RP models are often built as the first physical manifestation of the CAD model data. After building the RP model, the CAD model data changes and it changes quickly. The designer discovers something in the physical model that he did not see in the virtual model. The RP cycle – as fast as it is – is not as fast as it needs to be to keep pace with a good designer. This time lag, coupled with the relatively high cost of an RP model, discourages designers from building RP models for concept modeling. A solution is 3D printing.

If you consider how companies are using RP today, you could conclude that concept modeling using RP is already a $140 million market. That’s because $140 million is roughly one-third of the $421 million spent on RP-related products and services worldwide in 1996, according to the study. However, only about $4 million was actually spent on 3D printing products and services last year, indicating that there is a lot of room for growth. More than 100 3D printing systems were sold by three US companies in 1996, even though they did not start shipping production units until the second half of the year. Two of the three companies did not begin until November 1996. Not a bad start.

Chances are good that 3D printers will take over a significant percentage of RP models now being built for visual inspection. So over time, one-third of the RP market could shift due to the development of 3D printing. A 33 per cent drop in revenues could be devastating, even fatal, to some already struggling RP system manufacturers. Enhancements to 3D printers could further improve the return on investment (ROI), making it difficult to justify the higher prices and hassles associated with high-end RP. Could this cause RP systems, as we know them today, to fade into extinction?

The breadth of materials, coupled with part quality, gives high-end RP systems an edge over 3D printers. Presently, 3D printed parts do not match the strength, accuracy, and surface finish of high-end RP parts. For now, that will give manufacturers of high-end RP systems a reason for the higher prices. Even so, these manufacturers are being forced like never before to enhance the price/performance ratio of their systems.

In the future, probably by 2002, you will be able to buy office-friendly machines that build tough and accurate parts with fine detail and excellent surfaces – capabilities now available only from high-end industrial systems. If these new systems eliminate the expense and mess that come with some high-end RP systems, they will immediately win the hearts of companies that are now reluctant to make the jump into RP. As the gap between the low-end and high-end closes, high-end systems will need to offer something very special such as a unique material type, a large build volume, or high accuracy. These manufacturers also will need to promote their systems as solutions for special applications, such as building core and cavity inserts for tooling, an area that 3D office printing will unlikely touch before 2002.

Interestingly, some people wonder whether the 3D printing market will develop at all. They hope that virtual prototyping (VP) will replace early models and prototype parts. If this holds true, VP could do to 3D printing what 3D printing could do to high-end RP. Already, CAD solid modeling – a very basic form of VP – has helped reduce the need for some early physical modeling. As VP tools offer richer working environments and engage other human senses, such as touch, they will surely compete with low- and high-end RP. In the short term, this could actually boost the RP market because more companies will be producing digital models, but will continue the habit of physical prototyping. In the long term, however, VP could affect the RP market adversely as companies attempt to move directly from digital models to production tooling. So far, few companies have demonstrated that they can achieve this goal, so expecting it to become routine anytime soon is not realistic.

So will 3D printers cannibalize RP systems? Already, 3D printers are robbing concept modeling business from the high-end systems. If 3D printers improve at a faster pace than high-end RP systems, the low-end systems could become a serious threat, even for fit and function applications. ‘Fit and function’ represents another one-third of the money generated by RP. Roughly, the final one-third comes from tooling-related activity, and this is where high-end RP can excel. So stay tuned and brace yourself for changes in the RP industry – changes that could affect your job.