3D printing is not a new technology, but recent advances in several fields have made it more accessible to hobbyists and businesses. Compared to other tech sectors, it's still a small industry, but most analysts agree it has a lot of potential. But where is the potential for freelance designers and software engineers?
A fellow Toptaler asked me this a couple of weeks ago, because I used to cover 3D printing for a couple of publications. I had no clear answer. I couldn't just list business opportunities because this is a niche industry with a limited upside and mass market appeal. What's more, 3D printing is still not a mature technology, which means there is not a lot in the way of standardisation and online resources for designers and developers willing to take the plunge.
However, this does not mean there are no business opportunities; they're out there, but they are limited. In this post, I will try to explain what makes the 3D printing industry different, and what freelancers can expect moving forward.
3D Printing For Hobbyists And Businesses
First of all, I think we need to distinguish between two very different niches in the 3D printing, or additive manufacturing industry.
On one end of the spectrum, you have countless hardware enthusiasts, software developers and designers working on open-source projects. The RepRap project embodies this lean and open approach better than any similar initiative in the industry. RepRap stands for Replicating Rapid Prototyper and it's basically an initiative to develop inexpensive printers based on fused filament fabrication (FFF) technology. Essentially, that is Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, but RepRap can't use that name because it was commercialised by Stratasys. When the company's patent on FDM expired, FDM was embraced by the open-source community, albeit under a different name.
One noteworthy feature to come out of the RepRap initiative is self-replication; the ultimate goal of the project is to create a 3D printer that will eventually replicate itself. We are not there yet, but some RepRap designs allow users to print three quarters of the printer. You still can't print extruders and electric servos, but it's a start.
However, RepRap was never supposed to be a commercial success. It was created as a tech-first initiative, so it was never consumer-centric. It was all about pioneering various technologies and bringing them to the hobbyist market at low cost. RepRap was never supposed to be a cash cow.
So what about big business? A number of industry pioneers have already become 3D printing heavyweights. These include Stratasys, 3D Systems, Ultimaker and Printbot. RepRap printers still command a big market share, and they're not being squeezed out by proprietary platforms. In fact, most vendors have no choice but to embrace some RepRap standards in order to guarantee compatibility.
However, simply listing 3D printing companies and their respective market share does not paint the full picture. For example, RepRap is limited to FFF technology, which is the most widespread 3D printing technology today. The problem is that FFF printers have a lot of limitations, which means they cannot be used in many industries.
Different Technologies For Different Applications
To get a better idea of what's out there, we need to take a look at currently available 3D printing technologies. This might not seem interesting if you're not a hardware geek, but it's important to understand the difference between various printing technologies (and I will try to keep this section as brief as possible).
- FFF/FDM usually relies on thermoplastic "filament" heated by the printer extruder prior to being deposited on the print bed. Most FFF printers rely on ABS and PLA plastic filament, but the latest models also use polycarbonate (PC), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) filament. Some even use metal wire instead of plastic, while others use sawdust to create quasi-wood objects. Some can even print food, chocolate, pasta and so on.
- Granular printers are different beasts since their material is not filament but, usually, powdered metal. These printers tend to be based on laser technology (although they don't have much in common with your office laser printer). They use a powerful laser to selectively fuse granular materials. There are several ways of doing this: Selective laser sintering (SLS) printers fuse small metal particles by the process of "sintering," while selective laser melting (SLM) printers melt the powder. Electron beam melting (EBM) printers hits metal powder with an electron beam in a vacuum environment
- Stereolithography (SLA) printers transform liquid raw material into solids using light. These printers have a number of advantages, in terms of accuracy and the ability to produce complex objects in a single pass, because SLA prints don't require struts or supports, in most cases. The downside is that the choice of materials is very limited. They are usually exotic liquid polymers, and can't be used to print metal or chocolate.
There are a few more 3D printing technologies out there, but I see no point in covering all of them for the purposes of this blog post.
So why aren't we all playing around with 3D printers in our homes and offices? Why can't we print objects the same way we print invoices, sheets and emails? 3D printing is not going mainstream any time soon, and here are some challenges and issues that need to be addressed first.
- Prohibitively expensive hardware
- Limited user base (compared to traditional printers)
- Immature technology
- Price/performance, ROI
- Running costs
- Energy efficiency
With each new generation, entry-level 3D printers become a bit cheaper, but they are still too expensive for most potential users. It's one thing to buy a $200 printer for your home or office, you'll probably end up using it a lot, but the same isn't necessarily true of 3D printers. How many people need to print documents, and how many need to print 3D objects?
Technology is improving, but serious limitations persist. 3D printers are still slow, are sensitive to all sorts of adverse conditions, their "printbeds" tend to be small (especially on inexpensive models), the choice of materials is limited and filament can be expensive.
The reason why businesses aren't lining up to buy 3D printers is simple: ROI. 3D printers still can't come close to traditional manufacturing methods in terms of speed, cost and energy efficiency. This does not mean industry isn't going to shift to 3D printing in the future; we are already seeing some pioneering developments, but 3D printers won't render traditional manufacturing techniques obsolete soon.
Still, there are some noteworthy exceptions. A couple of years ago, General Electric set out to design and build a new fuel injection nozzle for its next generation CFM LEAP turbofan engine, which is bound to end up in hundreds of airliners. GE eventually settled on 3D-printed titanium nozzles. The reason? The new 3D printed nozzle ended up 25 percent lighter than the previous design and consisted of a single part instead of 18 on the old nozzle. Durability is expected to be five times better. These nozzles will be used in engines manufactured in 2016 and beyond. GE hopes to produce more than 100,000 3D-printed parts by the end of the decade.
A team of GE engineers decided to create a working replica of one of the company's engines, using a new granular printing technique dubbed "metal laser melting."
Long story short, no, you won't buy 3D-printed toys for $2 anytime soon, but you will fly on airliners powered by more efficient and reliable engines, made possible by 3D printing. There won't be any 3D-printed chocolate in your local mall, at least not yet, but your dentist will tell you it's probably not a good idea to eat chocolate anyway, right after you get your 3D-printed prosthetic.
There Is Another Way: 3D Printing Fulfilment Services
So, you have a great idea for a product, but first you need a small series of prototypes. Who do you call? Do you buy a bunch of 3D printers? Or do you simply send the design to a fulfilment service that will ship you the completed models in a matter of days?
Google and Motorola didn't invest billions in their own 3D printing facilities when they unveiled the Ara modular smartphone concept. They outsourced module manufacturing to 3D Systems. This example also underscores the potential flexibility of additive manufacturing: Ara is based around an alloy exoskeleton filled with various standardised modules that could be 3D printed. Since the modules have to connect to the exoskeleton, 3D Systems developed a new technique of depositing conductive materials within the printed components, which is a far cry from traditional 3D printer prototyping.
3D fulfilment services usually offer several different printing technologies, cutting-edge hardware and support. Why bother getting a $2,000 printer when you can simply send your designs to professionals and use any of a variety of professional printers, some of which cost more than your home? And let's not forget about economy of scale; big services can and should offer a superior price/performance ratio compared to in-house printing.
In my opinion, this is the way to go. This straightforward business model has a lot going for it, and it's hard to see how individuals and small businesses could compete on an even playing field. In terms of price, size and energy consumption, a professional 3D printer has more in common with a printing press than your LaserJet, and how many people need a printing press in their home or office?
(One of my pet peeves is the name itself. When you mention a "printer" in conversation, most people think of their home inkjet printer, or office printer. While it's true that 3D printers are printers, they don't have much in common with traditional printers, and this distinction is often lost on laymen. If we just kept calling them additive manufacturing machines, this wouldn't be an issue.)