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).