Here's the million-dollar question: Will 3D printing be the game changer journalists like me are so eager to dub it, or is it a niche technology that's destined to become even less relevant as flexible automation solutions and collaborative manufacturing robots decline in price? Is there really a role for 3D printing outside of prototyping?
Smart people spend a lot of time thinking about these things, so I reached out to one of them. John Hornick is the author of the new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World. He has been a counselor and litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of the Finnegan IP law firm for over 30 years and has lectured on 3D printing all over the world.
ZDNet: There's been a lot of promise around 3D printing, and certainly it's making its way into lots of industries, but the revolution still hasn't arrived. Why not? What are the hurdles?
JH: On the industrial side, the barriers are repeatability and quality, speed, and the need for advanced materials. But don't believe the 3D printing industry isn't growing. The CAGR of the industry has been 26.2% for 27 years and 31.5% for 2013-15. Gartner predicts full industry adoption of 3D printing by 2019.
ZDNet: Where is 3D printing making the biggest impact now?
JH: As I explain in my new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, available on Amazon in paper or Kindle), the poster children for 3D printing today are the aerospace and health-care industries. The companies using 3D printing for aerospace are among the largest and most influential in the world, and they are using 3D printing to streamline manufacturing and reduce costs. But people will probably notice the effects of 3D printing on health care sooner than they notice the effects in any other area. The adoption of 3D printing by these industries is giving the technology visibility and credibility, and helping to drive the industry forward.
Boeing is a big user of 3D printing. It has been 3D printing for many years and flies tens of thousands of 3D printed parts. Boeing calls 3D printing "the ultimate manufacturing method for us."
NASA 3D printed a rocket injector that not only reduced 160 parts to 2, but can withstand temperatures in excess of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit and more than twenty thousand pounds of thrust.
Airbus expects to be 3D printing thirty tons of metal airplane parts by 2018. One of its first 3D printed achievements was a wing bracket, traditionally manufactured with many steps. With 3D printing, it was made in one step. Airbus's A350 XWB aircraft contains over a thousand 3D printed parts.
GE believes that 3D printing "is the future of manufacturing" and that by 2020 well over 100,000 end-use parts in GE engines will be produced with 3D printing. The first part will be a fuel nozzle. By 3D printing this nozzle, twenty parts are reduced to one, which weighs 25 percent less than the traditionally manufactured nozzle but is much more durable.
In health care, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has 3D printed titanium cranial implants and replaced a woman's jaw with a 3D printed prosthetic. In 2013 doctors replaced 75 percent of a man's skull. In the United Kingdom, doctors replaced half of the pelvis in a man with a rare type of cancer. Tens of thousands of replacement hip cups have been printed and implanted into patients.
Other 3D printing developments in health care include customized coverings for artificial limbs and cosmetic ears. About 95 percent of all hearing aid shells are 3D printed. The molds for about seventeen million teeth aligners are 3D printed every year. 3D printed tracheas and tracheal splints are almost routinely saving newborns with serious breathing problems.
The human heart is the subject of considerable 3D printing efforts. Aorta cells have been 3D printed at Sabanci University in Turkey. The University of Louisville expects to 3D print a human heart by 2023. To save existing hearts, Washington University in St. Louis is developing an elastic, 3D printed membrane that wraps around the heart like a glove. Its embedded sensors detect impending problems, and embedded electrodes deliver a life-saving shock when serious arrhythmias are detected.
A great medical application for 3D printing is surgical models and guides. Models of patient organs are being 3D printed and studied by surgeons before the first incision. Surgeons at Miami Children's Hospital 3D printed a replica of a four-year-old girl's heart to plan her complicated surgery. Doctors at Boston's Children's Hospital practiced on a 3D printed model of a teenager's brain before operating on the real thing. Texas Children's Hospital 3D printed the hearts, lungs, stomachs, and kidneys of twins conjoined at the chest and abdomen so that surgeons could plan and practice their separation, which was a success. 3D printed models are also being used to train tomorrow's brain surgeons.
ZDNet: How is the technology changing and improving? What's on the horizon in the short-, mid-, and long-term?
JH: The machines are getting faster, combining different 3D printing processes, and combining 3D printing with traditional manufacturing processes. HP's Multi Jet Fusion machines, which combine three or four types of 3D printing technology, as slated to go on sale later this year. Toshiba will begin selling its industrial metal 3D printer in 2017, which it says will be ten times faster than existing metal machines. Canon has announced a fast machine for production parts fast and Epson says "We want our machines to make anything" by 2018. Boeing and nScrypt have also announced machines that build parts in true 3D, rather than simply layering parts linearly in the z dimension.
ZDNet: Where (which industries) will 3D printing make the biggest impact in the years ahead?
JH: In the near term, aerospace, healthcare, and the military will see the biggest impact from 3D printing. The military's use will cut across all types of technology. In 5 years, most industry will be affected, especially parts-based businesses. Over those 5 years, companies from outside the 3D printing industry will enter it, like HP, Toshiba, Canon, and Xerox. Over the next 10 years, industrial and consumer 3D printing technology will move closer together. 10 years from now, most homes will have a 3D printer. It may be a general purpose machine or it may be a purpose-built machine that has a particular, limited function.
ZDNet: What do people often get wrong about 3D printing, or what surprises people most?
JH: People are often surprised that 3D printing is as advanced as it is, and that the industry and adoption of the technology are growing so fast.
ZDNet: Will the tech ever scale to become relevant in manufacturing, as opposed to being a prototyping tool? How/why?
JH: Although 3D printing may eventually be capable of mass production, such a goal is not its strength. The technology is perfect for making customized parts, complex designs, one-off parts, and low to moderately sized production runs. 3D printing is already in widespread use for manufacturing production parts, especially in aerospace and health care, which are taking full advantage of the strengths of the technology. I gave some examples above.