3D Printing Industry — Looking Back and Standing Present

The 3D Printing industry feels new, but it has been quietly humming along for more than 50 years. Perhaps more surprisingly, the 3D Printer industry has created a buzz that is just like the personal computer before its hay day. The coming comparison between the two will tell you what you need to know about the 3D Printer to decide: short-term buzz, or budding new technology.

Definition: 3D Printing is a manufacturing and engineering capability whereby material is layered onto itself in order to “print” or construct three-dimensional objects — most often prototypes, but more recently, finished goods.

The industry is young. The first algorithms of relation were written by a Herbert Voelker in the late 1960s thanks to a $18 million funding amount from the NSF, one of the government’s scientific research organizations. The government can be quite the entrepreneur, and they have been recently in this industry too. Overall, the main traction has come from the industrial side over the five decades. Recently we have seen the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter host a number of 3D Printers made for the common consumer. These range anywhere from $200 to $2,600. The growth of this consumer application is what grabs hold of me.

The first computer, similarly was a government funded operation. The ENIAC computer was built in 1946. After hardware was present, software innovations began to appear. In September 1975, the IBM 5100 was introduced to the world. In 1984, the Macintosh 128k made its debut, and marked the first confirmation that consumers might have a need for a previously untested technology. Suddenly, the 38 years of development of a conce intimidating computer industry isn’t so dissimilar from the 53 year 3D Printing development.

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Looking back to the advent of 3D technology,Charles Hull was credited for the technology called stereolithography (SLA). Three years later, Charles Hull went on to found 3D Systems (DDD), one of today’s largest market forces. In 1989, the main competitor of this duopoly, Stratasys Ltd (SSYS), was founded. Stratasys hallmarks fused deposition modeling (FDM). A recent subsidiary of Stratasys, Makerbot, is a consumer-centric company that is trying to put a 3D Printer in your home just like Steve Jobs envisioned a personal computer on the desk of every man and woman.

But, unlike Steve’s 1984 Apple II personal computer, consumer 3D Printers are far from consumer ready. They are about as attractive as an industrial cooker, but are no easy-bake oven. These printers are not aesthetically welcoming either, and they are not software-to-hardware seamless. Owners often buzz and ooze optimism about the hype, but some are also beginning to voice concerns that we’re just not there yet. It may still be too early to see 3D Printers on the shelves of Staples or the Depots.

However, the commercial and corporate applications remain formidable. NASA, Adidas, Boeing, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and many others have used 3D Printing technology to lower component part costs, bring products to market faster, and prototype design ideas for decades. For a technology that you and I have only just discovered, big industry has been taking strides for years.

In 1988, a total of 34 units were sold worldwide. In 2005, 2,755 units were sold. An estimated 56,000 units will be sold worldwide in 2013. With a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23% from 2002 to 2005, and a CAGR of 46% from 2005 to 2013, the growth is becoming attractive. HOWEVER, what does 56,000 units and all of this growth really mean? Consider that the personal computing company MITS sold about 6,000 Altairs in 1975. PC sales rose to nearly 1 million units five years later. It’s hard to bat an eyelash at less than 100,000 units, much less 3DP’s first million.

Who is likely to discover the game-changing application to bring us to a personal computer type need? The current generation that is being educated today, that’s who. Just like ARPANET, which started at six universities in 1970, universities such as Loyola Marymount University and the University of Southern California have massive 3D Printers like the Z-Corp and Stratasys machines in their lab. Under the enthusiastic eye of Dr. Rafiqul Noorani at LMU and Dr. Yong Chen at USC, developments in rapid rapid-prototyping processes continue. I had the chance to talk to Dr. Chen, and he has developed mask-image protection stereolithography (MIP-SLA), which allows prints to now be completed in a matter of minutes. Before, a basic print that sits in the palm of your hand might take two hours. After World War II, academic entrepreneurs like Edward Von Neumann, Herman Goldstein, and and Betty Jennings created the necessary computing innovations to make a hidden technology known. Just so, it will be through educational institutions that investment into 3D Printing will occur.

Continuing down this path with 3D Printing from the education perspective, Makerbot has launched Makerbot Academy. Makerbot hopes to put one of it’s own printers in every school in America. We have seen computing giants support education by donating their products and software to schools also. Take Apple for example. Apple proved this June of 2013 by donating $30 million worth of iPads (including related costs) to 47 schools in an agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District (source). From a business development standpoint, this is a great way to set the industry standard, or to encourage it, for the coming generation of users. Free training, tax deductibility, great feedback from the student users, and network effects all are upsides to this institutional approach. For Stratasys it may be a lofty goal to have a Makerbot in every US school, but competitors will see this and want to be — need to be — close behind second movers. Ultimately it is through this sort of strategy that will help to advance a company to propagate an entire technology industry.

From the 1960s to late 1980s we’ve moved from concept and equation, to company and product. We’ve progressed from patent filing and possibility, to scalable funding and real development. The government has been an early investor in the advancement of both the personal computer and the 3D Printer. It seems that the 3D Printer is not where it should be. But this is just a case of impatience now that we are used to technology improving faster than we can update it on our phones. The truth of the matter is that personal computing takes its origins back to the focused developments during and even before World War II. The 3D Printer has been around for a short period. It will grow and someone will ignite it with the spark of clarity needed in no time — just like with the personal computer. If you can see where we are, then just imagine where we are going.

This has been the primer from 3D4M.

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