Friday, 16 November 2012

Hype and Hope in 3D Printing?

Recently there are been a lot of hype in the media about "3D Printing". This was identified by Gartner, but their analysis of the coming "trough of disillusionment" should not in any way diminish the potential of additive manufacturing (AM) itself.

Others are now adding their voice to the concern about over-hype. Jon Evans dissed the analogy between the rise of 3D printing and that of 2D printing. And Jim Woodcock fears hype in consumer markets will negatively impact very real industrial applications.

Let's talk straight about 3D Printing. 

The term was first used by students at MIT in 1995. Graduates Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson modified an inkjet printer to extrude a binding solution onto a bed of powder, rather than ink onto paper. It neatly summed up what they achieved. However, using the term today can obscure the many different technologies that lie beneath.

As we touched on in "How many 3D printers do I need at home?" there are perhaps as many as thirty five (35) distinct additive manufacturing methods including:
  • Fused deposition modelling (FDM), which is suitable for use with a variety of materials that are pliable at higher temperatures, but which solidify upon cooling. Materials are extruded from a nozzle. It can work with common plastics such as ABS and PLA as used in plastic filament extrusion printers, edible materials like chocolate and a slew of other mixtures and compositions of diverse materials that have the property of a melting range. These are called eutectic materials and include diverse materials such as alloys, certain inks used in printing, even some minerals. 
  • Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), which is suitable for almost any metal alloy and also for ceramics. Sintering is a method used to create objects from powder. It is based on atomic level diffusion. A laser heats the powder and the atoms diffuse across the boundaries of the powder grains. 
  • Selective heat sintering (SHS) with a thermoplastic powder. 
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) with thermoplastic powders, metal powders and ceramic powders.
  • Powder bed and 'inkjet' head 3D printing, in which an inkjet-like printing head moves across a bed of powder depositing a liquid binding material in the shape of the final object. 
  • Electron beam melting (EBM) with titanium alloys.
  • Laminated object manufacturing (LOM) with paper, metal foils and plastic films. 
  • Stereolithography (SLA) in which laser sweeps through a bath of photopolymer, creating a solid out of liquid. 
  • Similar to stereolithography in using light, Digital Light Processing (DLP) employs a projector whose rapid movements of a micro-mirror plays the role of the laser, in this case hardening a liquid resin. 
  • Any others I have missed?
Even if we look at the simplest, FDM, printer hardware varies depending on the target material. There is no universal printer, and therefore no universal "3D printing" platform. Each technology has its role, some highly specialized. 

The only thing that all of these technologies have in common is the 'layer-by-layer' approach. 

As we have discussed before, 3D printing is therefore unlike the emergence of the early home PC in which the machine could be re-programmed by software for any task. While a 3D Printer can be re-programmed to produce any object it can only do so within its materials constraints. 

The world of atoms, it turns out, is rather more messy than the world of bits!  (Although one day, no doubt, advanced research at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms may prove us all wrong.) 

As if we needed more ways to dampen the hype, experts Econolyst point out that there could be as many reasons not to use additive manufacturing, as there are reasons to adopt it. They point to barriers such as part accuracy, repeatability  mechanical property limitations, limited materials availability and data, immature supply chains (making it impossible to cost effectively insert additive manufacturing into the mix), and limited cost benefit analysis data upon which to make investment decisions.  

No doubt in the future we shall see new additive approaches and the emergence of hybrid machines. For the time being, complex products with embedded sub-systems still have to be assembled - despite the eye-catching demonstrations of 3D-printed objects with moving parts. And embedded electronics is some way off. Even the much heralded and truly remarkable multimaterial printers are only ambidextrous in their own domain, e.g. photo-polymers with differing qualities such as rigid, flexible, opaque, transparent. 

The diversity of the 3D printing landscape does not matter. This will foster many niche markets - both for 3D printers and for 3D-printed parts or products. The field is literally exploding with creativity! Hype is inevitable. Get over it. But never forget that even if additive manufacturing grew to 10x its current volumes, it would still be less than 1% of global manufacturing. 

For all of these reasons "3D Printing" projects must start with a sober analysis of what is needed to be made. The hard work is finding a way to do this with acceptable quality and cost. Parts or processes from other sectors can also inspire technology transfer

There is no doubt that AM-enriched supply chains are here to stay ... despite the non-existence of StarTrek replicators. Of equal importance to "3D Printing" must surely therefore be advances in digital manufacturing automation, able to embrace all of the ways that products are made and brought to market - additive, subtractive, fabrication (combination and assembly) and formative (shaping, bending, casting). 

Where it fits 3D Printing can be disruptive. But the shapes of the potential AM holes in supply chains are very complex. And finding a fit needs specialist knowledge. For the time being 3D Printing is perhaps less hype, and more hope, more evolutionary than disruptive.


  1. Another comment about hype:

  2. How long till not a revolution:

  3. Rebuttal to 3D printing revolution:


  5. Predictions of a disillusionment:

  6. 5 reasons 3D printing isn't quite ready for prime time: