I’m an enthusiastic advocate of 3D printing and its immense potential across industries. But the technology hasn’t taken off as fast as other developments in recent decades.
Just a few years ago, 3D printing sat poised to be the next major mainstream technology, but real-world business and industrial applications just haven’t happened on a widespread scale yet.
Fortunately, the slow adoption curve has lent ample time for the technology to develop and begin showcasing its true value—which is just starting to happen today.
Tracking the Growth of 3D Printing
Decades ago, the first 3D printers cranked out simple plastic shapes—an amazing technological achievement that set the world buzzing. BMW jumped on the 3D scene around that time, printing early prototypes of vehicle components and designs—saving time and money on building new models.
But not every enterprise has been as quick as BMW to adopt 3D printing. The technology started as a novelty that only a few people enjoyed. While most technologies must be embraced fast or they miss their windows, 3D printing’s long adoption curve doesn’t signal its death. On the contrary, the technology has developed and improved without pressure from consumers and today’s advances—including increased capabilities and lower costs—could finally lead to widespread adoption.
According to the annual Wohlers Report, the 3D printing industry has grown consistently in the last 27 years, surpassing a value of $5.1 billion in 2016.
Despite the lack of individual company involvement in the technology, 3D printing has an indisputable market. Billions of dollars continue to be invested in 3D printing, which in my experience is a good indicator of strong future value and applications. We’re looking at an exception to the rule that a long adoption curve means a failed technology.
A Look at 3D Printing Today
3D printing is finally expanding into multiple industries as enterprises realize the potential benefits of cutting out chain suppliers for everything from mechanical components to office supplies.
Researchers and engineers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are using 3D printing technology to create an excavator composed of three parts—a cab, a stick, and a heat exchanger—that will then be assembled into a working unit.
The experiment may prove the feasibility of using 3D printers to construct low-volume, high-complexity parts for everything from consumer vehicles to industrial machines.
As more industries experiment with 3D printing using various materials, the time may come when businesses don’t need suppliers for many common items.
Did someone in your office steal your stapler? Just print another one.
Endless Applications for 3D Printing
In the health care industry, 3D printing may eliminate the need for organ donor wait lists. “Bioprinting,” or the 3D printing of biological materials such as organs and body parts, has already saved at least one life: In 2013, surgeons gave a girl a new trachea printed from her own stem cells.
If the idea of printing a human heart or lungs sounds too far-fetched, consider the concept of 3D printing your own medications.
I recently wrote about the mind-boggling idea of “chemputing”—using 3D printers to create chemicals. In the pharmaceutical industry, chemputing eventually could allow patients to print prescription drugs from home. Chemputing also has potential for aircraft manufacturers.
Advanced chemical 3D printing processes could enable developers to “grow” sophisticated aircraft—or even armies of drones—from a molecular level out of environmentally sustainable materials. From biotech to transportation, 3D printing is slowly but surely changing the way businesses operate.
As the technology becomes more sophisticated, more affordable and applicable to the average business, expect to see 3D printing in nearly every modern workplace.
In the video conferencing space I recently saw from one of the largest UC vendors on the planet an example where they used 3D printing to create a dock that would allow someone to place their iPhone and using a wide angle lens attached to the 3D printed Dock improve the video experience exponentially by allowing people to be more visible when doing video on their mobile.
This simple 3D printed Docking Station could be printed on a consumer grade 3D printer and only cost a few dollars per unit. A simple solution to making video on mobile a better experience for those connecting via an endpoint.
While the technology is undoubtedly exciting for businesses, it could open a whole new world for consumers, too. I’ve mentioned how 3D printing can enable businesses to tailor products for customers in a fast and cost-effective way. Big brands with the necessary funding for large-scale 3D printing applications, such as Nike, potentially could become more or less software companies—creating customized shoes for individuals with the push of a button, in much the same way print-on-demand services for books work today.
Then imagine one step further: A consumer who can print her own shoes at a local 3D printer. The localization of products via 3D printing will impact global supply chains significantly. Eliminating a global supplier will save companies time and money—and ultimately benefit the consumer with lower-cost goods delivered on demand.
Despite its long adoption curve, 3D printing is a top technology that will continue to grow in prominence around the world. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, more affordable and applicable to the average business, expect to see 3D printing in nearly every modern workplace. The long adoption curve only proves 3D printing’s long-lasting value and potential far into the future.
My advice to businesses in virtually any industry: Keep an eye on 3D printing and adopt it as soon as possible to stay competitive.