3D printing: Don't believe all the hype

The technology is interesting, but the novelty will eventually wear off.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
3d printing revolution or hype
Credit: Stratasys

Despite excitement over the technology and dreams of printing off our own clothes and utensils, if 3D printing is fated to become revolutionary, this will take place in the factory, not the home.

While 3D printing is arguably one of the hottest new categories in the technology industry -- following mobility and competing with connected cars and wearable technology, the nuts and bolts of 3D printing have been around for decades. However, key patents, restricted materials and the high price of printers has kept the technology firmly within manufacturing for years. 

The majority of key patents surrounding additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, have either expired or come close to expiry, which gives the industry the push required to advance. According to Bits to Atoms founder & Shapeways 3D printing designer Duann Scott, patents filed that detail the laser sintering manufacturing process used in 3D printing -- which allow items to be sold on as finished products -- have now expired, which could give rise to a host of new, innovative ways to use laser sintering and spur the technology onwards. 

However, while new patents will be filed as the industry evolves in the same manner as mobile technology, lawsuits will happen unless licensing agreements come in to play. Patent squabbles are part-and-parcel of the modern-day technology realm, and they are likely to crop up given the potential of the industry -- and this will eventually hamper progress. As big names become involved, this may also prevent smaller players from growing and competing if they cannot afford high licensing costs to use intellectual property.

Despite a number of crowdfunding projects dedicated to the creation of cheap, at the moment, household 3D printers, their range, price and materials are limited. If a business wants to use 3D printing within its supply chain -- whether to create products more cheaply or to manufacture individual components -- unless they have thousands of dollars to spare to purchase their own kit, they are required to outsource to specialized companies.

A number of tech players are looking at how 3D printing can apply to their business models. General Electric is using 3D printing to produce parts for jet engines, Boeing has created parts for a variety of planes, Hersey's is printing edible treats in different shapes and, in a darker fashion, Defense Distributed uses home 3D printers to create parts for guns. 

Hewlett-Packard has also said it will enter the 3D printer market this year, although details are sketchy. The firm's interest in the industry, for example, could result in the production of cheap printing units, but may also simply specialize in the production of ink or materials required to print. 

The technology can be used to improve supply chains, but arguably healthcare is benefiting the most from recent interest in 3D printing. Light, cheap prosthetics and artificial bone printing are only two examples of how 3D printing is making healthcare more affordable, and if the technology is going to have serious impact in a market, I would argue that healthcare is the best bet. 

In the consumer realm, firms such as Shapeways allow you to print off your own products -- as expensive as it can be -- but this is a niche market and is unlikely to expand beyond enthusiasts and those who currently enjoy the novelty factor. 

We also have to keep in mind that 3D printing in vast amounts often hogs huge amounts of energy, and so may not be viable for smaller businesses and projects beyond prototypes and tiny batches. 

While any movement in markets that spurs on competition and innovation are generally beneficial, 3D printing will still only have limited use in the consumer sector. The technology has applications in healthcare, construction and manufacturing, but is unlikely to be suitable as a household product beyond small, novelty printers which may be fun to print out gifts or designs, but no more than that.

Technological trends come and go, some leave a mark, and some do not. The mobility trend has resulted in declining PC sales and has spread worldwide, whereas we are yet to see whether wearable technology captures the imagination of the consumer in the same way.

The "next big thing" needs to insinuate itself into the consumer realm -- as well as the majority of home and businesses to deserve the name. 3D printing, although exciting and interesting, is unlikely to fulfil this role, as it will be a household novelty rather than becoming a household necessity. 

While valuable, 3D printing lacks the "revolutionary" label as it will remain in the manufacturing space for a long time to come, and unlike mobile devices -- which I would label "revolutionary" due to market spread and often low cost -- 3D printers require heavy investment for the kit, materials and maintenance -- making it unsuitable for the average home. The technology is within a 'hype' stage, but eventually will find its niche within manufacturing and supply chains, novelty products and in the creation of prosthetics in healthcare. Valuable? Absolutely. Revolutionary? Sadly not. 

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