The future of the burgeoning 3D printing industry looks set to be a battle of materials and data, as the industry's emerging players work to create technology with the potential to change the face of the world's manufacturing industry.
In early July, Australian-listed graphite and nickel mining company Kibaran, which operates in Tanzania, signed a deal with Melbourne-based 3D printing company 3D Group, to go halves in a new research and development company called 3D Graphtech Industries.
While the company's new name might not be as catchy as some, the business it is working to build in the local market is very catchy indeed.
In fact, it is currently one of the most visibly fast-growing sectors in the world, and it has captured the imagination of a vast cross-section of the world's industry — from furniture designers and artists to aerospace engineers and the military.
The central focus of the joint effort between Kibaran and 3D Group is to work out how to use graphene, a carbon nano-material derived from graphite, in 3D printing applications.
In July, Kibaran told its shareholders the 3D printing industry was evolving rapidly, with accelerating technological development forecast to drive the 3D printing market value from its current $3.8 billion to $16.2 billion by 2018 — as estimated by Canalys in its 3D printing market study published on 31 March 2014.
Likewise, the Wohlers Report 2014, published in May, placed the valuation of the market for 3D printing, consisting of all products and services worldwide, at $3.07 billion last year, with the compound annual growth rate of 34.9 percent.
With 3D printing occupying such a fast moving niche in the market, Kibaran and 3D Group are, like a growing number of organisations around the world, hoping to tap into the market and catch the wave before it crests.
In its goal to achieve this end, 3D Group is paying particular attention to materials development for 3D printing devices, along with design data and intellectual property (IP) applicable to 3D printing.
With the estimated future growth potential of the market in mind, 3D Group has said it wants to become nothing short of Australia's leading integrated multi-platform 3D printing company.
3D printing heritage
3D printing may have recently caught the imagination of 3D Group — and the world — but it's not new.
3D printing — or additive manufacturing technology, as it's otherwise known — has been around for decades. Although some of the materials used in 3D printing have varied somewhat since its introduction in the 80s, the actual process behind additive 'printing' in a three-dimensional matrix remains largely unchanged in many ways.
A 3D printer will have either a printhead moving on three axes or more, injecting a resin, polymer or some similar substance onto a surface, layer by layer until an object is built, or feature a platform moving beneath a print-head to effectively accomplish the same layer-by-layer object build.
Also during the 80s, techniques were developed to construct metal objects using additive manufacturing techniques. Two of these techniques were direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and selective laser sintering (SLS), both of which typically involve binding metal powder together to create solid objects, although nylon and polystyrene can also be used in some SLS applications.
While the core technology behind 3D printing has been around for a while, it has also traditionally been quite restricted in the sorts of materials required to print objects. Early on, it was resin, now it is a little broader, and includes various types of polymer.
In the manufacturing sector, sintering 3D printers typically use a small selection of metal powders — titanium is particularly popular among aerospace contractors, for example.
More recently, 3D printers have emerged that can handle more than one type of material at a time, printing composite objects. However, these materials remain relatively restrictive.
3D Group's managing director Frank Pertile, however, is convinced that materials development will be one of the key elements that will pave the way for the future development of the 3D printing industry.
"The materials side of things is a very, very important one in the grand scheme of things," Pertile told ZDNet. "The materials are what will take 3D printing to a whole new level."
He also said that data relating to 3D printing and digital designs for 3D printers will likely play an increasingly important role in the future of the sector, particularly in relation to online 3D printing marketplaces, which currently seem to be sprouting up around the world like mushrooms.
3D Group is working towards being able to provide end-to-end services and products throughout the entire 3D printing landscape — from prototyping 3D printers and retail kiosks, to an online marketplace and printing bureau, and even a far-reaching 3D printing school education program. And data will likely be key to most of these goals, according to Pertile.
"It's a very dynamic landscape when you realise that it's about the data, and that data can be applied to so many different end modalities," he said.
3D printing + graphene = revolution
However, given the effort 3D Group is putting into its joint project with Kibaran, materials development is clearly a central theme of the company's broader plans. Pertile believes that if materials scientists can deliver a workable solution to employ graphene in 3D printing, it could change the face of manufacturing forever.
"If something can be developed that does marry 3D print technology with graphene, then it will definitely be a game-changer in terms of building things like electrical devices," he said. "It does open the opportunity to — in an almost one-print fashion — develop a product from its internals to the aesthetics."
First developed in 2004, graphene is pure carbon in the form of a thin, almost transparent sheet, one atom thick. It is currently being employed by research teams around the world for its remarkable conductivity, strength, insulation, and weight properties — all of which outperform even the closest material competitors by enormous degrees.
While work is being done by the likes of Manchester University in the UK and researchers in the US, Pertile hopes his own team in Australia will develop intellectual property around 3D printing processes utilising the nano-material.
"The prospects and potential of the incorporation of graphene into the existing devices and technologies is enormous," he said. "For example, if you can embed graphene into a polymer that makes it very strong, the whole spare parts industry can be affected by that."
Although Pertile is clear that the successful development of such technology would lead to massive changes in 3D printing's role within the manufacturing sector, he concedes that today's additive manufacturing technology is still largely used for prototyping and high-value, low-volume production.
"They're the virtues of the technology right here, right now. In terms of mass production, it's certainly not there now; material costs are too high, it's too slow, and it's just not going to hit those markets," he said.
3D printing for rapid prototyping and proof-of-design purposes is nothing new to manufacturers, with up to 25 percent of manufacturing already employing additive manufacturing techniques for prototyping, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report (PDF), while 10 percent are also using 3D printing for the production of final parts. Although companies such as Boeing use additive manufacturing techniques for the end production of smaller aircraft parts, many large manufacturers, such as Ford Motor Co., have used 3D printed to incorporate rapid prototyping into their research and development cycles.
Smaller, cheaper 3D printers
These days, however, it is not only large manufacturers employing 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Much of the recent growth in the 3D printing market has been driven by smaller, cheaper printing machines flooding into the market.
In fact, the latest Wohlers Report suggested that much of the expected growth in 3D printing will be fuelled by sales of 'personal' 3D printers — desktop-controlled 3D printers that sell for $5,000 or under. This growth has already been acutely visible for Joe Farr, general manager of Thinglab in Australia, a distributor for popular commercial 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot.
Over the past year, Farr has seen Thinglab's Australian 3D printer business double, and from his perspective, the rapid growth has been triggered by a lowered economic barrier to entry for the technology, and the broadening use of certain materials.
"There's been a dramatic shift in the way 3D printers are used and who uses them," Farr told ZDNet. "The price has come down, so our lowest-cost 3D printer when we started would have been $20,000 plus, and now we sell 3D printers for as little as $2,000. So, there's a big difference in price point and that opens it up to a whole new market."
While Farr said that the 3D printing technology his company now sells is much 'cleaner' than it once was — being much more desktop-friendly — the core technology used in the machines has been around for a long time.
"The technology we sell around here has been around for probably 30 years or so," he said. "The machines are evolving, but the techniques behind them are still remaining the same. There are not many new 3D printing technologies coming out, although there are some on the horizon.
"But the key aspect is the price point, and the size of the printers, how easy they are to get into a small office or a department of a larger design team," he said.
Like Pertile, Farr attributes some of the growth in the 3D printing market to the proliferation of cleaner, and more versatile print materials in desktop 3D printers. Again, these are not necessarily new, according to Farr, but they are cleaner.
"The printers we sell, they're not resin-based anymore," he said. "[But] this cleaner printing technology has always been around — it's just become a lot more accessible."
The 3D printers Thinglab sell typically use PLA or ABS plastic filament, which is a solid polymer that is melted to a molten consistency before it is injected by the printhead.
"You're only ever working with a molten plastic, which means that the plastic, especially PLA — which is a safe bio-plastic — doesn't off-gas and therefore it's a cleaner printing process for office use."
From Farr's perspective, however, the range of materials available for use in 3D printers is still relatively small, which is one reason why the machines such as those made by MakerBot are still used primarily for rapid prototyping, rather than full-blown prodution items.
"There are a limited number of materials at the moment," he said. "MakerBots are generally used as a prototyping tool. They can be used for manufacturing, but they are generally used for prototyping."
With the right range of materials, however, 3D printing could offer manufacturers the ability to make products at volume with less waste, more accuracy, and superior structural integrity. Already, at a prototyping and low-volume level, the technology offers manufacturers these perks.
"Rather than making a part from a solid, you can build it up from scratch, and you can save a massive amount of material," said Farr. "You might be talking about 30 percent material usage compared to other manufacturing techniques, and also you can design the structure more efficiently to save weight. It can be a sleeker design with a lower weight, but still performs to the same level and be able to take the same forces."
The new service offered by Amazon is not dissimilar to a growing number of other players in the online 3D printing market, such as Shapeways and Sculptero, which also offer a dizzying array of small plastic trinkets — as well as the digital designs for them.
As researchers around the world and companies such as 3D Group work to incorporate new materials into the 3D printing market, stakeholders around the world hope that 3D printing technology will hopefully soon move beyond mere plastic bobble head dolls, and eventually and reshape the global manufacturing industry.
US President Barack Obama seems to think it will.
In his State of the Union Address in February last year, Obama suggested that 3D printing technology could revolutionise manufacturing.
"Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio," he said. "A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything."