As a long term advocate of additive technologies I have been through the peaks and troughs associated with an emerging sector. However, I have never before been witness to the growing momentum behind these technologies that exists today.
It is not possible to point to one single factor, which is probably why there is strength behind the momentum as opposed to 'hype'. Rather, it is now possible to identify a cumulative range of events and circumstances that are contributing to this escalating energy behind both 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
As the world tentatively heads out of recession, albeit teetering on the brink with economic commentators uncertain about which way the cards will fall as of yet, the vendors of additive technology platforms have fared pretty well. Some better than others, as would be expected, but what it very telling is that none have gone into administration. All of them have managed to keep their heads above water. Stratasys recently released its end of year results for 2009, and the general pattern is probably similar across the board, in that unit sales were down on the previous year, but still healthy enough. Cost cutting and belt tightening helped to buoy up the figures some, and overall the rhetoric was positive. An industry that can demonstrate positive results after a devastating year — economically speaking — only points to further significant growth at a faster rate as global circumstances improve.
Awareness is another significant factor in this building momentum. It's been a slow process (akin to wading through treacle at times) but it is now spreading at an exciting rate. There is much more talk, debate and understanding of the additive manufacturing concept. From a personal perspective, I am finding that I rarely have to explain the concept itself anymore, as most people that I speak to have heard about it and grasp the basic idea. Rather it is a case of explaining the different processes and the range of capabilities. This is progress!
A further significant pointer that I became aware of yesterday is that a large retail outlet that has picked up on the technology. PC World posted an article on its website: http://www.pcworld.com/article/189880/affordable_3d_printers.html. It refers directly to HP's interest in 3D printers and I imagine this is what brought it to the company's attention. Also, the article talks about 3DP and AM as a technology of the future, but it is talking, and more to the point, it is taking the message wider. Just think of the number of people that would never come across a manufacturing or technology website but will visit the PC World website. There could be many more 'Eureka' moments as a result!
Many of the blogs relating to 3DP and AM are also becoming much, much more prolific with their posts. A great many of them distinguish between the industrial strength processes (Stratasys, 3D Systems, Objet, ZCorp et al) and the 'hobbyist' platforms (RepRap, Fab@Home, Makerbot and BfB RapMan etc). The hobbyist platforms being those 3D printers that come in kit form. I am not sure if the 'hobbyist' label works for me, I don't think it conveys the full potential of these machines, but I get the point and the differentiation.
As of today, I think the sector is mid transition — somewhere between niche and mainstream — and moving faster than it ever has before!