The Future of 3-D Printing? No One Has the Answer

The future may be bright, but even the experts can’t quite say where 3-D printing will be in 10 years.

Mar 22, 2014 at 3:15PM

"The overnight sensation that took 30 years." That's how James Woodcock describes 3-D printing.

The group editor for the highly respected TCT Magazine + Personalize has been covering the industry for a long time, when it was known as "rapid prototyping" and companies like General Electric (NYSE:GE) were the forces driving it.

So, Woodcock knows more about this industry than most. Where does he see the technology in 10 years? Our roving reporter Rex Moore was able to chat with Woodcock at the recent 2015 International CES in Las Vegas. In this video, he attempts to answer this question and more.

A full transcript follows the video.

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Rex Moore: Now let's talk a little bit about TCT. You've been covering [the industry] for a long time. I think you had a great phrase you used to describe 3-D printing.

James Woodcock: The overnight sensation that took 30 years.

Moore: Thirty years, yes. Tell me a little bit about where 3-D printing has come from, and where you see it, 10-20 years down the road. That's a fair question, right?

Woodcock: Well... From our point of view, we started in 1992 when it was really niche. It was rapid prototyping -- everybody referred to the technologies as "rapid prototyping" -- and that was all they were used for. It was just for compressing the time to market in product development.

Over the last 20 years, that has grown and it now covers everything from the consumer -- prototyping is still a big part of what 3-D printing is about -- but right through to end part manufacture. Guys like GE Aviation, again, are using these technologies for real parts. That's something that wasn't the case in 1992, when we started.

It's been a roller-coaster ride, but the last three years we've seen more, quicker developments from this industry than the preceding 19 years. It's really pushed on in the last few years. That makes the question of "where do you see it in 10 or 20 years..."

Moore: Ridiculous!

Woodcock: If I knew that...

The way it stands at the moment, and the trajectory that it's on, who knows where it's going to be in 10-20 years. I think it will become ubiquitous across manufacturing, and I'm more open to the prospect that it might become more ubiquitous in the home as well.

Moore: We haven't discussed this. I don't know if you're an investor, but if you had to pick a company or something that you see -- I'm not asking you about the stock, per se, or the shares, as you say in the U.K. -- but just a company that you think might leap ahead of any others.

Woodcock: At the moment, I can't see that one is going to leap ahead of any of the others. The number of different technologies that are grouped together as "3-D printing" is enormous. You're talking tens or hundreds of processes using thousands of materials.

To be able to pick one out and say, "They're going to be the one," I think it's still too early to tell.

Moore: At The Motley Fool, we have encouraged for people interested to buy a basket of these companies. Buy a little bit of several, whatever you can, and you're really just holding the industry.

Woodcock: Yes. Nobody has it all at the moment, and whether anybody ever will is debatable. I think to get the best out of it, yes, you need to hold a little bit of everything because the applications are so diverse, and what tomorrow's applications will be, nobody knows. If they continue in the medical, aerospace, automotive, then I would predict that -- but you never know what's around the corner.

There could be somebody coming to the show today who's never seen 3-D printing before, who is the first 3-D printing billionaire. You never know.

Moore: Great example. James, thanks very much. Enjoy the show, and have a safe trip back to the U.K.

Woodcock: Thank you very much.

Rex Moore has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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