Arthur C. Clark once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 3D printing, seeing massive growth in only five years, is akin to what those seeing the very first computer must have felt, pure magic – and let’s face it, a little daunting.
To assist those looking to improve their craft and help me better understand where the industry is going, I asked leading experts about the industry: where are we now, where do we want to be, and how can we get there? Below are some of the most significant insights from the experts.
1. 3D printing is not yet mainstream – but we are getting there
Leading industry innovator and industry advocate John Biehler had this to say: “High-quality and low-cost 3D scanners and design tools are still imperative in order for 3D printing to go mainstream.” And what about that learning curve we hear so much about? “It’s still relegated to industry and tinkerers due to the high learning curve and relatively high cost involved to get a decent 3D printer operating in the home, that also doesn’t require a degree in computer-aided design to use effectively. The barriers are coming down, albeit slowly.”
Brian Jepson, the publisher of Make Media, had an interesting take on the question, relating it to food. “There’s another way to ask this question, and it’s ‘when will I see a 3D printer in every home?’ I think the answer is as soon as there’s a sub-$500 printer that makes stuff I can put in my mouth. At some point, I’m going to be overflowing with trinkets that I print on my four working printers. Wouldn’t it be so much better if I could eat those trinkets and make them disappear that way?” I’m hungry for cake now!
2. The expiration of patents is shaking up the industry – for the better
The race is on and the future looks bright for further development in the industry, but what about those pesky patents, which many people see as holding things back? Brian Federal, maker of the movie 3D Printing Revolution, had this to say: “Patent wars and patent expiration will continue to be an issue in the evolution of 3D printing. It is easy to see this issue from both sides of the table.”
He further expanded on the issue: “As a 3D patent holder, many times an individual or company has invested large amounts of capital in research and development to realize the patented device or service, and these companies need to recoup their investment. If you are a scientist or engineer who needs a specific patented widget to innovate a new technology development, the cost of the patent may be too high to continue your research and realize your innovation. There are also patent trolls out there that buy patents in hopes of litigation and a big payoff down the road. The patent law in America needs a total overhaul. The speed of innovation has never been as fast and furious as it is today. Mankind needs innovation to survive and live more sustainably on the planet. Patent law could ultimately be a stumbling block in creating new scientific innovation. Elon Musk announced last week that he is making all the patents owned by the Tesla car company ‘open sourced.’ This means that anyone can use his patents to innovate. This is a radical solution but we are in radical, fast-changing times that require us to be more nimble in the realm of innovation.”
3. Women and millennials are lagging behind
A recent survey found that only 4% of the survey respondents were women and, perhaps more surprising, that millennials are the least engaged age group in 3D printing, followed closely by baby boomers – at 10% and 15%, respectively. What can the industry do to attract more women and millennials?
We asked Rachel Park, an industry leader, that question. “Education is where it is at, and more needs to be done – non-commercially – to push 3D printers and other D&T technologies into schools. As generations of kids grow up with the technology and the processes improve, I believe it will truly move into the mainstream. It is hard to overstate just how important incorporating real skills into classroom education is for the future of 3D printing. Engaging all children at the earliest opportunity will likely see an increasing interest from girls who grow into women.”
Federal further expounded on the topic: “Attracting more women into science and engineering professions, like additive manufacturing (3D printing), starts in elementary school and at home. It is a challenge for parents today to be aware of these technologies and make sure their child is receiving the tools they need to learn them. The computer opens the door to true democratization of information and allows young people regardless of gender to explore science as never before. If you want to learn something today, you can just go to the University of Google. This democratization is clearly evident through online learning sites like the Kahn Academy.”
He continues, “I believe that a young person’s natural curiosity is one of the greatest collective resources we have as humanity. I think it is each person’s responsibility to give back in some way by supporting science, design, and art education in their communities (STEAM). The dysfunction clearly evident in the current educational system in America is just sad. I firmly believe we can do better. Like most government institutions, it is not a lack of money that is the problem, but a lack of will and creative vision.”
Dave Evans put it this way: “3D printing does something very few other technologies do – it combines art and science. What a great way to get key women (and men) involved now regardless of background.” We couldn’t agree more!