The Industry's Next Major Turning Point

What is the next major crossroad, for better or worse, in additive fabrication?

By Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the September/October 2006 issue.

Anyone in the business, research or education that works in a fast-moving area of technology must do his or her best to anticipate what is ahead. If one moves forward aimlessly, they will likely end up lost, much like a hiker in a heavily wooded forest without a map and compass or a familiarity of the area. One must do their homework and understand the possible difficulties that lie ahead. Note, though, that this month's installment is not about challenges, but rather opportunities. In preparation for the journey. what might the hiker learn? Will he or she be treated to a beautiful waterfall, crystal clear lake, colorful plants, snow topped mountain peaks or something much less desirable? Reducing the next major turning point for the industry to a single occurrence, development or technology is not possible. I believe the industry will, instead, experience an enduring wave of events, each of which will impact its course. It will not come without storms, fires and floods, but the striking sounds, smells and sights will prevail and offer an environment within which people will want to stay.

Widening of System Prices

As of July 2006, the cost of additive systems spanned from a low of about $15,000 for a 3D printer to a high of $1.4 million for a metal deposition system. Desktop Factory is expected to ship its new 3D printer for $5,000 to $7,000 around September 2006. As technologies and markets develop, expect prices to drop further. Meanwhile, at the high-end, companies will produce large-capacity and specialized systems for industrial use. As rapid manufacturing increases in popularity, organizations will be able to justify systems that cost $2 million or more. These systems will ship in very low volume, while much less expensive 3D printers will ship in relatively high volume.

Concept Modeling

The days of buying models for early design and conceptualization from a service provider are over. Designers are now producing them in-house. The use of affordable additive machines by designers, engineers and others will expand dramatically as systems and materials improve and prices decline. Most service providers are now providing parts for rigorous functional testing and series production. Over time, they will lose some of this business as 3D printers improve and become suitable for a wider range of applications.

Expanding Application of 3D Printers

There is a misconception about the future use of low-cost 3D printers. Most believe that they will be used almost exclusively for design and conceptual modeling applications. This may be true for the majority of them in the foreseeable future, but an increasing number of organizations will apply them in unconventional ways and push their limits beyond their intended application. Already, there are documented cases in which organizations have used 3D printers to successfully manufacture series production parts. The idea will expand as more people gain access to the technology and apply their creativity and ingenuity.

Expanding Application of 3D Printers

There is a misconception about the future use of low-cost 3D printers. Most believe that they will be used almost exclusively for design and conceptual modeling applications. This may be true for the majority of them in the foreseeable future, but an increasing number of organizations will apply them in unconventional ways and push their limits beyond their intended application. Already, there are documented cases in which organizations have used 3D printers to successfully manufacture series production parts. The idea will expand as more people gain access to the technology and apply their creativity and ingenuity.

Vertical Marketing

The manufacturers of additive systems and materials will be challenged to target and market to a growing range of discrete groups. Among them: architecture/engineering/construction (A/E/C), geographic information systems (GIS), jewelry, dentistry, medicine, figurines, video games, museums and courtrooms. Meanwhile, most system manufacturers will need to continue to market and sell products to the mainstream sectors including automotive, aerospace/military, consumer products and electronics, business and industrial machinery, and education/research. Most companies have limited budgets for marketing, advertising, exhibiting and selling. Consequently, the system and material manufacturers will be faced with determining which groups to target and when, and which to ignore. The overwhelming temptation to go after more markets than resources allow will stretch some companies to a point of ineffectiveness.

Maturity of Service Providers

The time when service providers could "shoot from the hip" is gone. Margins no longer permit it. Quotations, project management, accounting and delivery must now be done with precision. The service providers of today are more sophisticated and are increasingly functioning like contract manufacturers. To survive, these companies must be well-oiled and tuned "machines," with every part functioning efficiently and with purpose. Companies that once offered something for everyone have faded since the heydays of the 1990s. Those that are thriving have targeted particular industries and are offering special services that are not commonly available in-house within product development groups at OEMs.

Discovery Among Manufacturers

Most manufacturing companies have not yet considered the use of additive processes for part production. It will not be a good fit for some, but for others, rapid manufacturing will produce new business opportunities that are difficult to fathom today. As the "light bulb" illuminates at these companies, a growing wave of organizations will try it for the first time and some will be astounded by the results. They will buy additive systems and custom-tailor them for their particular needs. For large industrial segments, the system manufacturers will develop specific machines, or versions of an existing machine, to meet the demand. Development of special software and materials, as well as pre-and post-processing steps, will enhance the offerings and help accelerate the growth of rapid and custom part manufacturing in a wide range of industries.

Startup Ventures

Scores of new companies will emerge from seemingly nowhere. Entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with the alluring notion of launching a part-making business with an affordable additive system, will be sufficient motivation for many. Small groups of individuals and family operations will manufacture everything from custom jewelry, action figures and bobble heads to parts for antique restorations, remote control aircraft and museum artifacts. Already, many ideas are in the heads of countless individuals as they consider how they might turn the distinctive capacities of digitally driven design and additive fabrication into a new business. As you chart your course for the future of additive fabrication, consider the vast number of changes, developments and opportunities that the industry will experience. With proper focus and preparation, you can take pleasure in the journey without getting lost or overly frustrated along the way.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For more information visit http://wohlersassociates.com.