September 15, 2012
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of several bestselling books, including Outliers: The Story of Success, which is one of my favorites. Ten years ago, he authored a book titled The Tipping Point. Gladwell describes the “tipping point” as that moment when an idea or trend crosses a threshold and spreads like wildfire.
Has additive manufacturing and 3D printing—I use the terms interchangeably—reached the tipping point? The accumulation of activity over the past 12 months suggests that it may have hit this important milestone. The technology is receiving unprecedented attention by corporations of all sizes, the investment community, and government agencies around the world.
Two factors may be contributing. One is the use of the technology for parts going into final products. OEMs and suppliers in aerospace, medical, dental, and some consumer products industries are working diligently to identify parts and products for production by AM. Companies such as Boeing and Lima Corp. can point to examples where additive manufacturing is transforming the way in which they design and manufacture.
The other factor is the dramatic growth of “personal” 3D printers, which are those priced under $5,000, but more typically in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. This market segment has grown from 355 units in 2008 to an estimated 23,265 units last year, as published in Wohlers Report 2012. This activity, coupled with high end applications in aerospace, medical, etc., has captured the attention of the mainstream media, and they can’t seem to get enough of it. This is creating awareness and fueling interest among the masses. For corporations not yet using it, executives are asking, “Why not?” and this is creating a flurry of questions and research.
It’s not easy to know when a class of technology has reached the tipping point. Yet, as each month passes, it’s becoming apparent that additive manufacturing has indeed reached it. This means that new business opportunities in many industries could develop at a breakneck pace. This would lead to even more interest, investment, research and development, new products, and broader and deeper application. Now could not be a more exciting time to be a part of this exciting industry.