Is there a future for 3D printing?

I want to dedicate this post to innovation in technology and entrepreneurship. The question in the title is probably a silly one because a recent event taught me that 3D printing is actually already a 30~ year old idea. In the recent years however it managed to break into the mainstream, probably thanks commoditization and availability in the retail area. This seems to have worked as an eye opener for the wider audience, including people ready to invest into this technology – and including myself.

Like many people, when I read about 3D printing, I tried to find additional information describing the process, innovation and use cases. Nevertheless whatever I found did not really explain all the hype powering this subject. I mean – OK, it is a new thing, allows creating, designing, but where is the big selling point? Is it a matter of having a new toy for the kids with focus on boosting their creativity? Or maybe this is all about small markets for catchy goods like these rings from Japan? For a long while I could not find anything better beyond that. What further made me think “oh well, time to move on to other things” is a post on Slashdot about a year ago, asking the readers to share their use cases and ideas. The result? Many comments simply said “nothing”. Some brought up the possibility to reverse-engineer and produce parts which are no longer in sale. That’s something, but not much. After all, the trend today is to make devices that only last a couple of years. Plus, not every material can be used in the 3D printing process.

The actual eye opener for me came on the recent CIONET event dedicated to start-ups (kudos to Krzysztof Frydrychowicz and Bartosz Górczyński at this point for making every CIONET event so worthwhile coming to). Among the start-up presenters was one not so much of a start-up but a lively developing company called 3D Makers Zone presented by its founder, Herman van Bolhuis. This Dutch company was a start-up in the 3D printing business in Amsterdam not so long ago. Now they have a solid, diversified business and are looking to scale up. I have to admit that with the outcome of my previous on-line researches I was rather sceptic. Nevertheless after Herman’s passionate presentation I couldn’t help myself but approach him for a discussion. The goal for me: understand what he sees in the 3D printing business that I am currently missing.

The first mistake might be obvious by now. I had focused on the retail market, for which there might be no better future than what I mentioned above. The real business is the niche that remained between contracting factories for mass production and the smaller businesses, that needed affordable and easily available production on a smaller scale. Imagine a workshop on your street where you could go and have almost anything you need designed and printed with a decent level of quality in 50-100 pieces only. If you run a repair shop or anything similar that could be a godsend.

But Herman takes it further. With the miniaturisation of technology, he’s able to produce “smart” materials – with embedded sensors, or even something that can change its shape depending on environmental circumstances. But what really impressed me is what he called “distributed manufacturing”, meaning production of goods at their destination. Taking into consideration the amout of items that are easily produced but then their price increases drastically due to shipping – this is just brilliant! I need a full ship cargo of mugs I produced shipped to Brazil? No problem, have a printing shop set up across the Pond and all that becomes easy and without the risks or insurance costs needed to cover the actual logistics.

When asked about printing electronics, Herman said this is not yet available. No wonder, I thought, since mass chip producers like Samsung or Micron run billion dollar businesses to further shrink the transistors and optimize the complex production processes. That seems to be out of reach from the affordable printing business although Herman suspects it is not far away – perhaps a matter of a couple of years.

Still, printing electronics actually got me thinking about the possibilities and development paths. I still remember the college classes where we’d be coding an 8051 circuit board with what could be designed in VHDL. I remember how painful it was. Trying to focus on the solution yet keep coming back to the strict rules of low level programming. I can imagine that the big players in electronic manufacturing can simply afford all the low-level programmers, for whom the development process simply became less painful over the years of practice. How would affordable 3D printing change this process? Would people like Herman’s R&D team be able to commoditize and popularize electronics manufacturing like it is possible today with mobile phone apps, where you can now create applications with limited programming knowledge? Imagine you’d be able to have a working board from just the logical design of your new solution.

Today I am looking at the 3D printing business with a different perspective. I believe a bright future lies ahead.