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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Friday 27 January 2012

If You're Reading This You're Probably 'Additive-Informed' — Which Subset(s) Do You Belong In?

Lots (and lots and lots) of noise about the recent developments with and forecasts for 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

The debate is healthy, but it does become extremely complicated. I have tried, for my own sake, to break this down, but it is never simple, and always becomes convoluted by the numerous different factors that are in play. (I have even tried diagrams — didn't work — but if someone wants to give it a go???) Anyway I'll give it a try here, with my favourite medium, words, because it is important to understand these factors and to use them in a positive way when facing the market at large.

There are two obvious groups to start with: the 'additive-informed' (subsets include vendors, resellers, users and media) and there are the 'additive-oblivious', by far the largest group at this point in time, that may or may not have heard about the technologies, but, either way, they do not comprehend or use them in any constructive way.

The additive-oblivious group, symptomatically, are not involved in current debate, but they are beyond important, because in terms of growing the awareness and the industries themselves - they are the target market. And we are talking about two different industries here: additive manufacturing and 3D printing.

Am I repeating myself? Yes. Can I overstate this point? I don't think so.

These two industries are two further subsets within the 'additive-informed' group, both of which are targeting different subsets of the 'additive-oblivious' group: industrial users and general consumers.

And, if you're confused already, this is where it gets even more complicated: within the 'additive-informed' group I've already identified six subsets. Two further subsets, which are interacting frequently and vociferously are the 'believers' and the 'cynics', I should clarify that this is predominantly to do with the 3D printing for the consumer subset, not the additive manufacturing for industry subset. Having said that, there are still cynical voices that acknowledge the value of additive manufacturing technologies for prototyping and product development but refute the production capabilities. (See what I mean about complicated?)

However, differentiating between additive manufacturing and 3D printing is essential to move both forward in a cohesive and clear way. Unfortunately, the candid conversations that are taking place about the current state of these industries, blur the lines between the two, and keep them from being mutually exclusive. For example, the consumer focused 3D printers that have been presented to the market recently, are being compared with the earliest RP processes of the late 80's / early 90's, and not faring too well as a result, with claims that these consumer printers are not matching the output of RP machines 20 years ago. But this is like comparing apples and oranges, or, a Smart Car with a Formula 1 car!  It is an unfair comparison because the intended applications of industrial grade machines are not reconcilable with those of the 3D printers we are starting to see today. Both the additive-informed and the additive-oblivious as they become aware, have to understand that these two industries should be mutually exclusive, despite some similarities in the nature of the processes. Even when the 3D printers improve (they will) and the additive manufacturing machines come down in price (they are).

The above point also provides a good opportunity to highlight the significant improvements to the additive manufacturing machines in the last 20 years since they were only plastic rapid prototyping machines. Some of the most developed processes — DMLS, EBM, SLM, LENS etc — can now process titanium and similar high grade materials with good repeatability for highly engineered parts. They still don't come cheap, but investment is justified for many global manufacturers of highly engineered parts because additive manufacturing is producing complex structures that are both stronger and lighter than traditionally manufactured components. 

Which leads to yet another good opportunity to restate an important point: for these manufacturers, additive manufacturing will never be a replacement process, it is an additional tool that can bring huge advantages to their overall manufacturing strategy. For instance, Rolls Royce, Boeing, British Aerospace and Airbus have all gone on record as having invested in the technologies. These companies are well advanced in establishing, from a standards point of view, that the process of choice is a viable and compliant manufacturing method. The regulations and testing requirements, are, as would be expected, demanding, expensive, time-consuming and rigourous. Components are invariably tested to destruction over and over again to ensure regulatory compliance. But the payback for such investment is huge. Take just one component  — incorporated onto an aircraft — if it is lighter it is more fuel efficient and contributes to meeting environmental targets and if it is stronger it can withstand greater stresses. Now if this is rolled out to 50, 100 or even 500 aircraft components (of the many thousands required for a single plane), and then applied across a fleet of aircraft — even assuming only an average 0.5 kg reduction in weight for each component — any airline finance director will immediately see the sums starting to add up favourably, their environmental officer won’t be unhappy either. These equations also make sense for automotive manufacturers and governmental defence departments. 

These very high-end machines belong to a further subset of additive manufacturing, another of which is the additive machines targeted at prototyping applications. These 'middle-of-the-road' additive systems offer smaller companies a much more attractive price-performance ratio for their product development activities than the RP machines of 20 years ago. This target market is often over-looked these days, generally the message is considered to be old news. Nothing could be further from the truth actually. This is still a huge, untapped market that needs time and investment to convey the worthwhile benefits that additive technology can bring. The breadth of vendors of this type of machine increased following Euromold, and as the machines start shipping this subset should start to expand faster and further. 

As for 3D printing, while it has been born of additive manufacturing, it is a completely different beast and it is much earlier in its life-cycle, with endless possibilities ahead of it. As the 'additive-informed' we all have different opinions that shape our forecasts for the future of the technology. But none of us really know. It kind of all comes down to our experiences to date, and, dare I say it, faith. It is natural to compare it with other successful products (computers / mobile phones) or not so successful products (virtual reality) depending on your stance, but in reality, it will forge a market of its own. 

The only thing I know for sure? 

Either the believers will be proved right ..... or the cynics will! 

I'm firmly in the believer subset, I do believe that 3D printing will become an everyday consumer commodity, albeit not in its current form, despite the early adopters. And, how's this for an admission, for a while, I started teetering with regards to my own timeline forecasts, but, I am back from the brink, and I am going to stick with it (see previous post). 

Monday 23 January 2012

3D Printing: "We're in this time - where it's the beginning!"

I hope Bre Pettis of Makerbot doesn't mind me quoting him for the title of this post. I was watching the CNET video, again, of his and Cathy Lewis' joint interview (face-off actually), which was hosted during the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Bre delivered this line towards the end of the 17 minute video, which I would recommend, and it struck a chord, because I have been saying much the same thing in a bid to counter the hype surrounding 3D printing. The excitement, the promotion and the evangelising are all great to see as the 3D printing mantra spreads, these are staples of my daily existence, but the hype needs to be neutralised — by reason and by reality.

The CNET video can be viewed here: http://cnettv.cnet.com/future-3d-printing/9742-1_53-50118533.html

Above and beyond the fantastic fact that both 3D Systems and Makerbot were extremely visible on the show floor at CES, getting hoards of visitors together with a great deal of press attention, remains the grounding fact that we are, indeed, just at the beginning. 2012 is going to be another exciting year for the 3D printing sector — but it will not be the year that millions of consumers will put a 3D printer onto their 'to buy' lists. I've documented the reasons why in previous posts, and comments on other people's posts. But we are edging closer. Makerbot and 3D Systems are, in no small way, contributors to this movement forwards. While they have the media's attention, it is important to stress that they are not the only companies doing great things with and for 3D printing, but they do personify the trends that are emerging.

For many years I have expounded the divergence in the 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing sector, visible from those two terms - the personal manufacturing vision with 3D printing versus the industrial vision with additive manufacturing. The chasm between these two application areas is increasing all of the time, and rightly so. Consumer products, whether practical or decorative, designed for 3D printing with consumer-enabled customisation, will flourish and thrive and savvy creative individuals are already creating businesses based on this model. There are many, but a nice example that springs to mind, is Michiel Cornelissen (@michiel_ontwerp), a designer with a range of jewellery on Shapeways' website, who tweeted recently: "My monthly @shapeways payments are beginning to look suspiciously like an income. [the] 3D printing economy is here."

But while this consumer facing model is expanding, almost daily it seems, with creatives such as Michiel, validating the 3D printing possibilities of today, the industrial users of additive manufacturing are going from strength to strength also. And, I am sure this will continue, because regardless of whether personalised manufacturing becomes a reality or not, consumers, en masse, are unlikely to ever make their own cars, aeroplanes, medical devices / equipment, and national defence equipment etc. Nor should they, IMO. This needs qualified, experienced and informed manufacturing companies that are subjected to rigorous testing standards and security.  Incidentally, it is this differentiation that will also come into play on the fractious issue of firearms, I believe. Off on a bit of a tangent here, but there are voices that claim that personalised 3D printing is  bad because it means that criminals and terrorists can design and build whatever they need to carry out their villainy. I'm not buying this! There is evil in this world, there has been from the beginning of time and there will be until the end of time, and the perpetrators of such evil find a way through the barriers of civilised society, I don't think 3D printing will enable or disable them more or less than they are now, to be frank.

And back to the main thread — where we have individual creative makers and small start ups versus different industry sectors, all making different grades of additive technology work for them. Right now, it is happening and the market is growing steadily.

The claims for the future potential of 3D printing as a mass consumer technology is also stregthening. I am a (100%) believer, have been for years, but it's a while away yet. Broken record, I know, but I do have to keep saying it — it is not just around the corner, hence the title of the post. My bet is placed on 15-20 years, maybe longer. In the meantime, what watching the CNET video did clarify for me is the very different approaches to achieving this goal. On the one side we have the corporate giant with structure, IP and implemented strategy to attain corporate goals and on the other the passion and inspiration of a community leader, for who, it has to be said, 3D printing is a way of life. Only this morning, Deelip Menezes, commented to me that the video highlights the huge difference in the target audience of the two printers. I can't agree — both Cathy and Bre were at pains to convey that their respective printers were for "everyone". They both have the same target audience — EVERYONE. The difference, apart from the machines themselves, is how they talk to them, convince them and convert them to using 3D printers.

Currently, to use a 3D printer, you need technical knowledge — to design for it, to set it up, to make it run properly and to keep it running properly. This is a fact, and anyone that says different is hyping up the technology or process they are talking about. Part of the current appeal for creative users of 3D printing that are also tagged as makers, hackers and so forth is the technology itself, and making it work for them. I see this as an interim stage, that will co-exist with the later stage of consumer use. But for consumers to use this technology en masse what is required, apart from the documented plug and play usability, improved materials and lower capital cost, is a social change. This won't happen quickly. It needs education, which will breed know-how and familiarity across a couple of generations. Only then will 3D printing truly filter through to everyone.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Slightly more cohesive thoughts on 3D Printing in 2012

Following up on yesterday's rather rushed post, rushed because I was a woman on a mission, to complete my [long] to-do list for the day, and was fast running out of time. And I succumbed to the premise that anything is better than nothing. Apologies for that! Oddly enough, a touch of insomnia brought some much-needed time to just think and sift through the brain overload in order to gain some perspective. Notwithstanding, I feel a tad tired, but much calmer than the mad woman of yesterday!

And there was plenty to think about. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) hosted in Las Vegas, USA for 2012, even before its doors open today, has got the year off to an explosive start. As I mentioned yesterday, 3D Systems is using this event as the platform for launching Cubify.com and introducing the consumer-targeted Cube 3D printer (of which more later). 

Makerbot's early 2012 announcement, introducing the Replicator 3D printer, was also revealed yesterday, and will be at this show. Makerbot has achieved extraordinary things since it launched just over two years ago — not least the following it has acquired, which is both brilliant and astonishing. Bre Pettis, who has actively lead the company since its inception, has instigated a very effective formula that combines technological know-how with successful engagement of his target market. The dividends speak for themselves. 

The new Replicator 3D printer takes the Makerbot offerings to the next level. It comes fully assembled, as a plug & play machine, with improved features such as a larger build area and "Dualstrusion", essentially the ability to print two materials within the same build. The price is $1999 or $1749 for the single extruder version. Although targeted at "personalised manufacturing" I don't think this price point is quite right for that yet, but I have already heard a multitude of converts say they want one! 

I imagine Makerbot's stand will be inundated later on today when CES opens its doors.

Another very interesting announcement came recently from Sculpteo. After nicely overhauling it's website for the start of the year, this 3D print company has launched a very neat new iphone app providing easy mobile access to 3d printable data. Accessibility to customisable, 3D printable data, which encapsulates and liberates one of the biggest selling points of 3D printing, namely the ability to print unique, personalised products quickly, easily and cheaply, is the way to grow. This is also what the Cubify.com platform is bringing with it. Easy access to 3D data for 3D printing. The little girl with the yellow shoes testifies to that! Cubify goes live about four hours from now (thanks Deelip!) and I imagine I won't be the only one testing it out today ;-) 

I do still see the Sculpteo-type business model as the main growth area for 3D printing within the consumer industry for the foreseeable future. Consumers, in the main, will be attracted to the ability to choose and customise their own products, and have a 3rd party print and send. We will have to wait a few months to see if the Cube or Replicator proves me wrong — or indeed, any of the others! 

In terms of unit sales of 3D printers, I am sure they will continue to grow also. For now though, I see the greatest target markets for these as SME's and educational institutions. Getting the design tools and 3D printers into classrooms across the board, is, I am convinced, the surest way of growing the market in the longer term, whilst exciting future generations of designers and engineers and growing these skill bases once again. Moreover, as I have said before, if children grow up comfortable with these technologies in the classroom, they will be confident when it comes to having one in their home! And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it? 

Monday 9 January 2012

3D Printing - Onward & Upward

I may be a little late with this overview/preview bandwagon entry, but I'll try to be original, or maybe not, you can judge. It's late because I completely disconnected over the holiday season, and then I had to catch up. It was worth it.

2011 was quite a year from my perspective as a commentator on 3D printing / additive manufacturing. It was different in many ways, not least the rate of news and growing awareness and increasing user population. While I am certain there is still a great deal more to come within this fascinating arena, I think I am convinced that I will look back on it as the year it all began in earnest. I am not quite sure what that makes the preceding 14 years though.

The preface? The introduction? The preamble?

So, by far, the week that stands out most for me in 2011 came at the end of November. Euromold saw the launch of no less than eight new additive machines. To date, this was a unique week indeed. It speaks of the growing population of companies manufacturing and supplying different (and improving) variations of 3D printers. It also points to an expanding market and increasing user uptake. This is brilliant, particularly considering the generic global climate that these companies are operating in. 3D printing is one sector that has consistently swum against the tide, with success, and looks set to continue to do so.

And so 2012 is underway, and with the potential of global meltdown ceaselessly opined from the news channels — whether sooner if the Euro fails, or later if the Mayan calendar proves the end of time — the world of 3D printing continues onwards and upwards, and I am glad to be part of it.

CES is taking place this week in Las Vegas and 3D Systems' is using it as the platform to launch a brand new concept from the company. Cubify.com looks stunningly good, and has the potential to reach 'Everyman.' The pre-launch announcement last week introduced an online create-and-make experience, which, according to the company, offers "a fully integrated, fluid interface ...with intuitive 3D apps, rich 3D printable content libraries ....for any mobile device, tablet or kinect." The beta site goes live tomorrow. Alongside this, the company also announced a new 3D printer — the Cube — due to start shipping in the next few months. A deposition machine, reminiscent of the UP 3D printer framework, I have to say that it really looks like a consumer product. I want one, and I am not alone! The printer can be seen in action here, fortunately it sells itself: http://bit.ly/zsfHlR 

Makerbot has also announced that it is making a significant announcement at CES. This one has not filtered through yet though ...... wonder what it could be?

So with 8.5 days of 2012 behind us and things hotting up already, what does this year hold? I think I can safely say there will be new machines. How many? Not even going to guestimate! I'm just going to wait & watch & tell you about them as they hit :-|)

Happy New Year to you all. x