Although 3D printing offers tremendous long-term promise to fundamentally change the way things are made, there are still many challenges for the technology to overcome before it reaches the point of mass adoption. After all, compared to traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing is typically slower, more cumbersome, and costlier to operate.
In the cutthroat world of manufacturing, it's abundantly clear that technology needs to make significant progress in these areas before it becomes a more compelling alternative to conventional manufacturing.
Weighing in on this matter is Rich Stump, principal at FATHOM, a boutique 3D printing service provider, consultant, and rapid manufacturer, whom 3D printing specialist Steve Heller interviewed during the Inside 3D Printing Conference held in New York City last month.
In the following video, Stump touches on bridging the gap between using 3D printing for prototyping and manufacturing, and on some of the limitations facing the technology today.
A full transcript follows the video.
Steve Heller: Let's talk about some of these manufacturing applications you mentioned earlier. Bridging the gap between prototyping and actual real manufacturing using 3D printing, what are some of the major challenges associated at this point?
Rich Stump: We're really focused right now on this downstream application of using the technology for manufacturing applications.
Tomorrow I'm speaking about using 3D printing to make injection molds, so taking a process that a Protomold [an injection molding service from Proto Labs] or another traditional manufacturer may use that could be potentially two to three weeks, up to 12 weeks [in turnaround time], we can now do in a matter of hours.
We may only get 20 to 100 parts out of the mold before the mold starts dying. If we can do that in less than one day, or a day or two, that significantly helps the customer's development process as they're testing real materials out of an injection mold unit.
I think some of the limitations we're reaching are just materials: getting higher-heat, higher-strength materials. We do have technologies like DMLS, the [direct] metal [laser] sintering, which can provide better material properties, but that comes with a pain point of time and cost, and a lot of other things that surround that technology.
Better workflows and better materials I think will significantly help this environment that we're in for manufacturing applications. I think in the next two to three years we'll see those improve, and we'll start to see, where the high-value manufacturing applications are necessary, these [3D printing] technologies being utilized in a big way to solve some high-value problems.
Heller: Very good. I guess you hit on this a little bit, but 3D printing really crossing the chasm -- right now [the industry is generating] about $4.1 billion [of] worldwide revenue of activity [per Wohlers Report 2015]. Really, it's an academic level of activity, compared to worldwide manufacturing, which is in the trillions of dollars.
In your mind, crossing the chasm to where 3D printing becomes a much bigger industry, that doesn't necessarily disrupt manufacturing but complements and makes manufacturing better, what are your thoughts on this timeline?
Stump: I think there are a number of challenges that we have. This industry gets complicated when you get into manufacturing because there are so many different processes, and you design for that process.
The biggest barrier of adoption, I think, is us -- human beings -- and learning the technologies and how to utilize the benefits from them for all these processes.
Software can help with that, and people are working on some software and some workflows to really take advantage of not having so much expertise in the design process to utilize this for manufacturing.
I'm significantly hopeful over the next three years we'll start to see heavier adoption and I think in the next five to 10 years we'll start to see these machines on the contract manufacturer's floor, actually making end-use parts.
We definitely need to see some commoditization of material costs for that to happen, because material cost is significantly expensive today. But I think as more players come into this market and start to jump on board, we'll see that just from a competitive landscape standpoint.
I'm hopeful, Steve, that this market will grow as noted. There's been a lot of hype, obviously, so we're starting to see that hype normalize a little bit, which I think is a positive thing moving forward. Now that we have some normalization we'll really start to see the growth of these real applications that will make a big impact in our customers' process.
Heller: In terms of being a user of 3D printing technology, what are you wishing for that doesn't really exist today? What is the pain point? Using the technology, you're the expert. You're like, "I really wish this technology could to X, Y, or Z." What is that?
Stump: I think more process optimization, getting the process to be a little bit simpler. Not requiring so much expertise; workflow optimization, so better software.
Software is one of the huge angles I think people are trying to focus on right now because everyone's been focusing on the hardware or maybe materials, and software has taken a backseat, but now I think that in the next even 12 to 24 months we're going to see some software technologies that will help with the workflows.
I'd say software, and then continual material development and process development for the machine itself. The speeds need to get faster, and the materials need to get better, and the costs of the materials need to come down in order for these applications to open up, especially in manufacturing, for it to make sense for customers to use.
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Steve Heller owns shares of Proto Labs. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Proto Labs. 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.