Technology magazines have hailed 3D printing as a new industrial revolution, predicting a machine in every home and 3D-printed products covering anything from plates to planes. And for the first time consumers can own the means of production.
In 2012, 3D printing, where products are built from digital designs by adding layers of material on top of one another, entered the mainstream. Disney, for example, is testing 3D-printed lighting parts that could be components of children’s toys, while British start-up MakieLab is selling personalised dolls produced through the process, which is also known as ‘additive manufacturing’. The technology has even extended to include applications as diverse as concrete construction panels and customised sex toys.
However, even though analysts at Deloitte estimated that the market for the machines would double in 2012, the professional services firm put worldwide printer sales below $200m (£120m), and less than 1 per cent of homes and small businesses have one. So is 3D printing just a fad or is it the future of manufacturing? Can it be a unique selling point around which to build and market a business?
At Disney, 3D printing is in the research stage. The company is looking at ways that the technology could be integrated into toys via optical components that can either display or sense light, allowing several interactive elements to be incorporated into designs. But Alice Taylor, chief executive of MakieLab, is clearly in the camp of those who believe the new technology represents a huge opportunity.
She says: “There’s definitely a lot of hype but there’s good reason for it. 3D printing is like the web in 1998, when there were a bunch of people doing it well in their own little corners but most of the world hadn’t cottoned onto it, and it was still quite expensive. What’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years is that there will be a plethora of machines and a lot of competition.”
At present, MakieLab’s main focus is on Makies – 10-inch personalised dolls created according to bespoke designs, which retail for £99. But Taylor says MakieLab aims to create a range of consumer products targeted to various groups, produced using the same technology. She suggests toy cars and robots as possibilities.
MakieLab has high-profile support in the form of Martha Lane Fox, founder of Lastminute.com and the UK government’s digital champion. Lane Fox was named chairwoman of MakieLab in September 2012, inspired, she says, by the potential of 3D printing to make entrepreneurs of individuals.
Commenting on her appointment to MakieLab’s board, Lane Fox wrote on her blog: “3D printing technology has allowed people to become designers, retailers and manufacturers all in one and has led to a mini revolution in the creation of products.”
The New York Toy Collective, whose toys are of a more adult nature than Disney’s or MakieLab’s, also argues that the possibilities presented by 3D printing give it a unique selling point, thanks to its personalisation options. Founder Chelsea Downs says: “3D printing allows us to print exact replicas of body parts from a few quick and simple scans rather than having to physically cast the part in a moulding material.”
The company does not make its sex toys through the additive process but it prints a model whose design can be honed before the final product is made from body-safe silicon.
“People want unique toys and 3D printing allows us to do small runs of toys for niche products,” says Downs. “Time will tell if this will turn into a trend, but we’re betting that it will.”
They are not the only ones. Manufacturer 3D Systems has a range of personal, professional and production equipment aimed at a spectrum of buyers from heavy industry to casual consumers. The company was founded in 1986 by Chuck Hull, the inventor of a 3D printing process known as stereolithography. Existing industrial applications include car parts for Formula 1 and Indy Car racing, producing customised prosthetic limbs and creating casts for turbines used in hydroelectric power stations.
Perhaps more significantly, according to media relations manager Alyssa Reichental, “the hope is that in 10 years everyone will be interacting with 3D printers in some way”. 3D Systems’ consumer model is the Cube printer, which Reichental says is designed with a cartridge system for ease of use. The company also runs a website where users buy and sell arts and crafts, in order to generate interest in the activity.
“Cubify is a marketplace where we have high-end luxury designers selling 3D-printed products like mobile phone cases, fashion, jewellery and home décor, as well as member-created designs that are printed at home, and independent artists. You could compare it to Etsy [the online marketplace] for 3D printing,” says Reichental.
But she also acknowledges that the cost of even a Cube 3D printer, which starts at $1299 (£800), is prohibitive for most people, and that there are other barriers.
“We know that 3D printing is expensive, but the real barrier is the design process. We think the first step in truly democratising access to 3D printing is the 3D design,” says Reichental.
It is for this reason that 3D Systems is marketing the Cube as a piece of technology for parents to use with their children, and is publishing software to make it easy to start out. If the next generation of school children grow up as familiar with 3D printing and computer-aided design as the current generation is with smartphones and tablets, the industry could reap the rewards in the coming decade.
But there are other hurdles to jump before 3D printing becomes commonplace, either as a stage in manufacturing the products and components on which industries are based, or as an at-home activity for enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. One of the limitations is the kinds of material that can be used and the applications for which they would therefore be suitable.
The additive manufacturing process has already been applied to an assortment of materials including plastics, metals and concrete, according to Richard Buswell, senior lecturer in building services engineering at Loughborough University, where he is researching the potential use of 3D printing in the construction industry (see Q&A below).
But he adds that not all 3D-printed materials could replace their conventionally produced equivalents at present. It is perhaps for this reason that additive manufacturing is more often used to produce prototype models and casts than the finished article. “Many of the plastic-based processes are not as good as their injection-moulded counterparts. You don’t get the same properties,” says Buswell.
There is also the looming spectre of piracy. Since designs for 3D-printed objects are available in digital formats, they can be spread easily online; for example, peer-to-peer download site Pirate Bay has an area devoted to making available both open-source and copyrighted designs. In 2011, British figurine maker Games Workshop issued a copyright notice to website Thingiverse, which specialises in hosting digital designs for physical objects, ordering it to remove files that were alleged to be copies of Games Workshop models.
Pirate downloads could potentially have the same catastrophic effect on the market for 3D-printed consumer goods as they have had on the music and film industries.
If there is a danger for brands, though, it is more likely to be that they buy into the hype too early and invest in the technology before they have a real use for it. Some companies, such as Disney, have ideas in mind, but even those could be years away from reaching the hands of consumers.
Senior lecturer in building services engineering
Marketing Week (MW): What is the purpose of your research into 3D-printed concrete?
Richard Buswell (RB): We recognised that there are a lot more complicated building forms being required from an architectural point of view, for making iconic statements, but also for bespoke design. Generally, if you move away from flat, repeated panel shapes, then construction costs get very expensive. Some buildings aren’t getting built for that reason. The sort of freedom you get with the additive manufacturing approach is able to address that, as you can produce concrete panels to order where every one is unique and has different curvature.
MW: Why is 3D-printed concrete easier to market in the construction industry than other materials?
RB: Because the industry is used to concrete. If we talk to them about that, they understand what it is. One of the things that we are trying very hard to do at the moment is make sure the properties of the material are reliable. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities to explore more materials, it’s just that we’re at the start of a journey and we’ve used a known material to get the ball rolling.
MW: How can 3D-printed panels become commonplace in construction projects?
RB: I think for it to become mainstream, there will first be a small project commissioned that will use the process; that will turn into a slightly larger project; then there will be a full-scale building and someone else will want one of those buildings. It’s going to be something quite big and expensive that spearheads the technology.
MW: How long do you think it will take before the technology is widely adopted?
RB: The development has been done and if it was something you wanted to push forward it could take a few years. With all these technologies, a good guide is to look at the fact that additive manufacturing has been around since the late 1980s, and we’re only just seeing it coming into the mainstream. These processes have a long gestation period.
At Loughborough, in a research context, we’ve demonstrated that the process is viable. We’re currently exploring ways for companies to take it from our labs into a construction environment and develop the process into one that is actually an industrialised process rather than a research prototype.