The Future of 3D Printing Starts with Business

This article is part of EDN and EE Times’ Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2017 feature, where our editors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2016 that promise to shape technology news in 2017 and beyond.

3D printing has been the stuff of Geeks and Makers Faires for quite a while. However, the application of 3D printing technology at the business level, particularly in manufacturing, is quickly emerging as the place where the real promise lies at least in the near future.

“Factors such as 3D printing evolving from developing prototypes to end-user products, mass customization, production of complex parts, government investments in 3D printing projects, and improvements in manufacturing efficiency are expected to drive the growth of the 3D printing market,” according to a new market research report 3D Printing Market  from MarketsandMarkets.

North America is expected to account for the largest share of the market, with a variety of business verticals leveraging the technology to do anything from creating prototypes to manufacturing enduser products.

Christop Schell

Christop Schell

EBN sat down with Christoph Schell, president, Americas Region, at HP to find out what he sees for the future of this hot technology.

EBN: 3D printing has gotten a lot of hype, but a lot of the interest and talk has been at the consumer level. Where do you think we are on the adoption curve in the business environment? 

Schell: Although there has been a considerable amount of attention on the potential impact of 3D on the consumer, Gartner accurately predicted two years ago that consumer 3D printing is more than five years away while business and medical applications will experience the biggest impact in the short term.

3D printing has the potential to transform our current “take, make, waste, and dispose” linear economic manufacturing model to a circular economy, and holds the potential to revolutionize product production and reduce waste through the reuse of components.

Today, 3D printing is in use across a wide range of manufacturing verticals, including automotive, medical, aerospace and consumer goods, generally for prototyping, product development and product innovation to create new items otherwise impossible using traditional methods.

A recent Gartner report titled 3D Printer Market Survey Reveals Enterprise Demand Drivers for Technology, Printer and Vendor Decision Making, found that the market is actually moving beyond design and prototyping applications to short run production quantities of finished products. The analyst firm expects that by 2018, almost 50% of consumer, heavy industry and life sciences manufacturers will use 3D printing to produce parts for the items they consume, sell or service.

However, the biggest impact of 3D printing on our daily lives still lies ahead of us. That's because 3D printing is about far more than just a new way of producing products, 3D printing is going to transform and disrupt manufacturing, supply chains, economies and the way we live.

EBN: What are the most interesting emerging supply chain applications for 3D printing? 

Schell: On demand will be a key supply chain disrupter. 3D printing will transform the supply chain in its potential to move manufacturing away from low-wage markets so that production takes place closer to the consumer to meet competitive pressures.

Customer purchase decisions increasingly are being made based on how quickly a product can be delivered. We partnering with a number of companies as they begin incorporating 3D manufacturing.

One example of a vertical market in the throes of a major transformation to its manufacturing model is the automotive market. In my recent blog about 3D printing and the automotive industry, I pointed out that Audi is using the technology to produce spare parts. While Audi hasn't as yet implemented 3D printing across its entire part catalog, it is able to print certain parts on demand. Besides benefiting the customer, the process is eliminating the over production of certain parts.

General Manager of HP's 3D business, Ramon Pastor, alongside the HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 products that have begun shipping to co-development customers. Photo courtesy: HP

General Manager of HP’s 3D business, Ramon Pastor, alongside the HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 products that have begun shipping to co-development customers. Photo courtesy: HP

EBN: What are the most promising applications for 3D printing for electronics manufacturers?

Schell:Up to now, 3D printing has been used for R&D in the electronics industry, but now it's moving into the mainstream production of electronic devices. A recent report from SmarTech, Opportunities for 3D Printing in the Electronics Industry – 2016 indicates that specific areas where 3D printing is being applied are customized circuitry and sensors, and in the longer-term, wide-area electronics. They also point to the use of 3D printing for electronics devices that are produced in low volume, such as high speed optoelectronics.

EBN: In terms of cost, how should electronics OEMs/contract manufacturers/electronics distributors think about leveraging the potential of 3D printing? How should they be looking at cost of materials versus the cost of time, inconvenience, etc. with the older methods?

Schell:Transportation costs will be lower as you move production closer to the consumer. Also by bringing manufacturing closer to the consumer, you eliminate risks of supply chain disruption, which can be costly. There's also the cost of work downtime as employees wait for parts to be delivered when supply chains are disrupted.

Another cost advantage is the need for less product inventory so there's potentially less cost of materials.  And you can customize products at little or no cost, which also boosts competitiveness.

And then there's just the time of supply chain management. As noted in a report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the Commerce Department on Costs and Cost Effectiveness of Additive Manufacturing: “Operations involve demand planning, forecasting, and inventory. Distribution involves the movement of products; and integration involves creating an efficient supply chain. Reducing the need for these activities can result in a reduction in costs.”

EBN: Where will 3D printing likely find strong footholds going forward? Do you see any surprising applications on the horizon?

Schell:The 3D market opportunity is substantial; according to IDC, the 3D printing market will reach $35.4B by 2020. As the market for printers, materials and services matures, IDC expects new 3D printing capabilities to enable a next-wave of customer innovation in discrete manufacturing, product design and life sciences. 

In addition to opportunities in automotive, healthcare, aerospace, and consumer products, another very interesting area where 3D manufacturing will be making a difference is food production. The technology can be used to “build” foods for specific diets or preferences. You could economically make a small batch production of a specialty food with 3D printing.

EBN: Are there areas of 3D printing that you think will be a “flash in the pan”? That are overhyped in terms of usefulness?

Schell:I prefer to focus on what is often overlooked – plastic. Metals and ceramics are often talked about but the fact is that plastic is by far the largest portion of the market today, with metals second. Engineering-grade, multi-purpose thermoplastics optimized for 3D printing efficiency offer a strong, tough solution for functional prototyping as well as final parts that are ideal for complex assemblies, housings, enclosures and connectors.   

EBN: What are the biggest improvements to 3D printing technology on the horizon? What can the industry expect in terms of features/capabilities/products?

Schell:At HP, we're making major breakthroughs in 3D printing with our recently announced HP Multi Jet Fusion technology, a disruptive voxel-level 3D printing technology. Voxel is a 3-dimensional pixel that leverages our world-class inkjet expertise. With the ability to print at the voxel level and create functional mechanically robust parts at high speed, manufacturers can create new design possibilities in the future. HP's Multi-Jet Fusion technology enables the production of the highest quality parts up to 10x faster and at half the cost, enabling the shift from prototyping to manufacturing.

Multi-Jet Fusion technology has other significant advantages over the other 3D printing technologies. First, it is the most productive 3D printing technology.  We define productivity as parts per day, parts per month. Second, Multi Jet Fusion is scalable. Just like our 2D printing business can go from a desktop up to an $8 million Web Press, 3D will be no different. In the future, you'll see us being able to create wide print bars that will allow us to produce large products or even drive more productivity.

We believe that 3D printing will drive the analog to digital printing transformation and HP has a great deal of experience in this transformation from our years in the 2D printing world and our graphics business. The prospects 3D manufacturing, in which the analog and digital worlds collide, couldn't be more promising.  By eliminating limitations, 3D on-demand manufacturing enables expression at the speed of thought to improve experiences and inspire new technology.

Where do you see the promise of 3D printing emerging in the global electronics supply chain? Let us know in the comments section below.

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