In the following video, 3D printing specialist Steve Heller asks Terry Wohlers, President of Wohlers Associates, which authors Wohlers Report 2014, what he believes are some of the most common misconceptions about 3D printing today. During the segment, Wohlers highlights that ease-of-use, the products that can be made, and the cost to produce a single 3D-printed part are among the most common misconceptions that plague the public's view of 3D printing.
While Wohlers' opinions aren't necessarily company-specific, it's important for 3D printing investors to understand 3D printing technology in terms of its capabilities and limitations so that their expectations don't outpace what's realistic. In other words, as exciting as it is that the 3D printing industry is expected to grow by more than 31% per year through 2020, investors could temper their expectations of the industry by gaining an understanding of the entire 3D printing process, from design file to finished product. As one can infer from watching the segment, it isn't always a straightforward process.
A full transcript follows the video.
Steve Heller: Hey, Fools, Steve Heller here. I'm joined today with Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates. He is the President and CEO of Wohlers Associates.
Terry Wohlers: That's right.
Heller: Your company is pretty much the godfather of 3D printing insights. From a global perspective, you have more insights than any company out there that's covering the space.
I wanted to just jump right in here. There's a lot of media hype out there. There are a lot of misconceptions. In your opinion, traveling the world, seeing all the 3D printing, what are some of the biggest misconceptions that you see out there?
Wohlers: There are many. One is that these machines are very simple and push-button. You throw data at it in the form of a file, you push a button, and out pops a shiny part. That's not the case.
Now, some of these low-cost systems are much simpler, and in many cases easier to operate. But especially the high-end industrial machines, there's a lot of steps. There are a lot of things that need to be taken into account in terms of quality control, powder management, powers, heat, so forth. They're not simple.
Another misconception is that you can make anything with these machines. Well, almost anything, but there are limitations just like anything, in terms of materials, how thin a wall you can make on an enclosure, for example. How small a hole or channel you can make. You have to get the extra material -- the support material or powder -- if it's a powder-based system, you have to remove that somehow and if it's too small or too long a hole, you can't get it out, so there's that as well.
A third misconception is that you can make one part just as inexpensively as you can make many parts. Well, in some cases that's true. On the very inexpensive machines, that is often the case.
But with the industrial machines, especially the powder bed systems, both metals and polymers, you want to pack in as many parts into that build chamber as you can. If you don't, you're wasting time and money, so there is economy of scale. You want to fill up every square inch of that chamber with a part.
Heller: There's a lot of post-processing involved too, in a lot of cases, especially around the metal 3D printing space, is that correct?
Wohlers: Yes. We did a project for Airbus, and we listed nine steps in producing a part on a metal-based machine. The first two steps, one is preparing the data, the second is to build. But then there's stress relief: That's a heat treatment. It's removing the supports and anchors, which can require EDM [electrical discharge machining] or a band saw or other tools. It's CNC [computer numerical controlled] machining to improve the surface quality, and other surface treatment.
There could be porosity inside the parts, and you don't want any porosity if they're being made as a hip implant or a craniofacial-type reconstructive implant, or a jet engine part. That'll be in production soon with the LEAP engine from GE.
These things need to be taken into account, so it's not just a machine, but it's a lot of ancillary equipment that surrounds the machine, and then a lot of experience and know-how to make good parts.
Heller: Yes, and there's still a very big learning process happening in that space.
Wohlers: Yes, and companies are at different levels. Companies that have had this for a long time know a lot about it. In fact, they often know more about the machines than the companies that sold the machines to them. Then there are many organizations that are brand-new to this, and they're just now discovering the capabilities and limitations of these machines. Apple Watch revealed: The real winner is inside
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Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems, Arcam, Apple, and ExOne. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Apple, ExOne, and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, ExOne, General Electric Company, and Stratasys. 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.