Column: Personal 3D Printing – A Paradigm Shift for Objects

In the space of a few years, 3D printing has passed from the status of a tool for rapid industrial prototyping to become a superstar in the hopes of the “New Industrial Revolution.”

For the first time in the history of manufacturing techniques, a compact and inexpensive machine allows objects to be produced on demand directly from a digital file. Interest from the public is such that platforms for sharing object files are springing up all over the Internet, and the concept is gradually gaining ground in a world where consumers are becoming designers of the world around them.

A 3D printer in every home?

The arrival of open-source personal 3D printers developed by a large international community of enthusiasts has profoundly transformed expectations in relation to this technology, which for a long time was the exclusive province of industry. These new devices take advantage of the progressive expiry of patents filed during the 1980s, and new models are expected to appear in the months ahead.

At the same time, certain industrial players have been profoundly affected by the arrival of 3D printing, which they no longer use only for rapid prototyping but now also for the direct production of everyday objects. These products are made to measure, on demand. 3D printing brings mass customisation to the consumer society, and brings with it new, local and personalised distribution models.

A new order of objects?

This also prompts us to ask questions about the actual status of the objects around us. With 3D printing, objects can be downloaded and adapted, leading to the birth of a new order of open and connected objects.

3D-printed objects are taking on forms that it was not possible to achieve in the past. They are more complex, lighter, better optimised and more environment-friendly. Industrial designers and engineers are having to leave behind traditional ways of creating objects and think of new methods that take account of the nature of 3D printing.

Is 3D printing about to disrupt traditional production methods and give rise to a new order of objects?

Many major players in technology and mass distribution are positioning themselves to accept and encourage the arrival of 3D printing. Last August, Microsoft announced the integration of automated processing of 3D printer files into Windows 8. UPS now offers a 3D printing service in some distribution centres in the US. Amazon has added 3D printers and materials to its online catalogue.

3D printing is growing fast

Some governments have decided to give significant support to additive manufacturing (formal terminology for 3D printing in some circles – editor’s note). In his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama announced that 3D printing had the potential “to revolutionise the way we make almost everything” as he launched the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute with funding of USD 30 million. The UK government is promoting 3D printing with a GBP 14.7 million package for projects by innovative enterprises utilising this technology. Singapore has announced that it will invest USD 500 million over the next five years in the development of 3D printing.

Sales are progressing rapidly. Industry analyst Wohlers Associates reports that sales of personal 3D printers increased by 346% between 2008 and 2011. According to research by Gartner, sales of sub-USD100 3D printers will increase by 49% in 2013, representing a total of 56,507 units sold. For 2014, continuing growth is estimated at 75%, with more than 98,000 units sold, and this figure is expected to double in 2015. Global expenditure on 3D printing is estimated at USD 412 million in 2013, an increase of 43% over 2012, with approximately USD 325 million spent by companies and USD 87 million by individuals. Expenditure is expected to continue growing in 2014, with an estimated increase of 62%.

3D printing holds a great deal of promise – but all too often this still depends on ignoring the current realities of the state of additive manufacturing technology. The materials available are still limited, the costs remain high, and access to object files is not yet widespread. The players are setting in motion numerous initiatives to overcome these limitations, and innovations in this field are exponential.

Mathilde Berchon is the main contributor to Netopia’s report 3D-printing: Technology and Beyond.