Trajectory: 3D Printing

3D printing is the colloquial term for additive manufacturing.  In recent years, it’s popularity has exploded, but it has been around in different forms since the early 80s. That’s coming up on 40 years soon! To understand where it’s going, we have to understand where it’s been and the path that it’s following.

I’ll start with the big picture. The technical trajectory of 3D printing are these items in a nutshell:

  1. Increasing resolution
  2. Increasing material selection
  3. More aesthetic possibilities
  4. Increasing speed of building a part
  5. Increasing strength (in concert with item #2)
  6. Lowering costs of machines and materials

The approaches that are taken to achieve these different results are highly varied, in fact depending on who is asked there is about 7-15 different technologies that are all called 3D printing! However, the end result is that 3D printing technology is reaching the level where it can actually displace other manufacturing methods for certain volumes, which wasn’t always the case.

Beyond that, consider the trajectory of it’s applications throughout it’s history:

  1. Prototypes for seeing how things look and feel.
  2. Prototypes for testing fit.
  3. Fixtures, gages and other manufacturing accessories
  4. Manufacturing tooling, prototype tooling currently capable
  5. Production parts – Likely low volume, or extremely complex geometries.
  6. Production tooling

With each step 3D printing takes, it’s drastically lowering the amount of time, and the cost it takes to turn concepts into products. This is important, because in the age of the internet, particularly the age of Amazon, the long tail (read that link about the long tail, it’s important) represents the biggest market.

The reason the long tail matters is that this shift in the popularity of those items is tied in with manufacturing and 3D printing. Traditional manufacturing runs off of economies of scale. Setup times are fixed costs, then part costs are incremental, so for small demands, prices skyrocket. However, as 3D printing begins making low-volume parts and tooling cheaper, the price or margins of the “long-tail” products can start to come to a reasonable level as well, likely further increasing the market size of the long tail, and perhaps allowing some of them to move closer to the popularity level of the “short head.”

This is the custom revolution that industry will start taking on. A few people that I would think this would matter for:

  • Custom machinery manufacturers – The whole point people buy off-the-shelf machinery is because of the huge price savings, however as custom machinery comes down in price, due to things like metal 3d printing, the attraction of a machine that fits your specific workflow rises.
  • Anyone currently making low volume injection molded parts – As metal printing can become capable of cheaply printing a mold, the cost becomes more attractive even for small volumes. Things being made for business swag, niche toys, or other widgets that may have many customizations, can become more popular due to lower costs.

3D Printing is on a collision course with the way the market is demanding more and more niche products and the way these products have traditionally been made, there is no stopping it.