“I’d much rather that people talk about the uses of 3D printing in robotics (such as drones) rather than about issues such as privacy,” says Brock Hinzmann. He is referring to current debate around consumer applications of drones.
Hinzmann, who describes himself as a technology navigator, has been tracking developments in the 3D printing industry for more than twenty years now. This year, he noticed a number of interesting trends related to 3D printing use in industries.
According to him, intersection between 3D printing and robotics was an emerging story this year. This is because 3D printing machines are now being used to manufacture a large variety of consumer products, such as home robots (as opposed to being used to manufacture heavy machinery such as aircraft). In turn, this trend also marks the first time that 3D printing is being used for printed electronics (such as the design and manufacture of circuit boards), as opposed to making structural components such as aircraft parts.
The increased viability of 3D printing for printing metal parts was another development that interested Hinzmann. According to Hinzmann, increased accuracy and strength of metal 3D printers makes the machines “more capable and attractive” for manufacturing. According to him, the density and finish of 3D printed metal parts is just as good as those manufactured using conventional manufacturing methods.
Part of the reason for this is because 3D printing makes manufacturing cost-effective. The entire part can be 3D printed in a single machine, thereby reducing the number of points of failure. This is unlike traditional manufacturing which fragments a single product into multiple pieces, each of which is manufactured separately and assembled together later. In the near future, he predicts that more industrially-capable 3D printing machines will emerge.
These machines are part of the 3D printing ecosystem. Despite hyperbolic coverage by the mainstream media, this ecosystem is largely niche and dominated by hobbyists. “There is a lot of hype (about consumer applications of 3D printing),” says Hinzmann.
According to him, several 3D printing machines aimed at the consumer market are sitting idle. For 3D printing to gain traction next year, Hinzmann says several things need to happen. For example, user experience, in the form of 3D printing design, needs to be improved. In addition, the support ecosystem for 3D printers also needs to be improved. “People who use the machines don’t have to be experts in CAD software and hardware,” he says. “They (consumers) want to push a button and have the object printed out just like their 2D printers.”
The entry of major players, such as HP (which announced a re-entry into the 3D printing market towards the end of this year), might change the dynamic.
However, Hinzmann forecasts a consumer industry model that is dominated by 3D printing-as-a-service. In this respect, he is not different from other analysts who predict a similar evolution for the industry.
For the 3D printing-as-a-service market, he has a different take. “I can see a large company walking in and making acquisitions,” he says. If this happens then the industry model will change from that of a couple of firms selling small machines to one that is dominated by established players competing against each other on price and quality. In this respect, Hinzmann says, the 3D printing industry will begin to resemble other, established industries. “This is the evolution of technology,” he says.