Five years is an age in the technology world. We expect, even demand, market-changing innovations from everything from smartphones and tablets to software and cloud services to be rolled out on a yearly basis, if not sooner.
As such, a report from Gartner that claims the use of 3D printing is still five years from mainstream adoption has an air of vague disappointment.
For so long we have heard about the benefits and wonders of 3D printing, but it won’t be until around 2019-2020 that most consumers will get to see this first hand.
The business world, though, is different, with 3D printing already well underway at companies such as Boeing and GE, which has more than 300 3D printers in use across its company. Others such as Tesco are already considering its impact.
As such Gartner's report, by research vice president Pete Basiliere, said mainstream use of 3D printing by businesses may be only two years away.
Build your own everything
Underlining this, Basiliere told V3 there are all kinds of sectors now using 3D printers for numerous reasons. These include the hearing aid and dentistry industries, which can use 3D printers to make ear pieces or crowns used for fillings, while the jewellery market is also moving to the use of 3D printing for design builds.
“Oil and gas and mining firms are also experimenting with 3D printing in order to be able to produce their own spare and replacement parts for machinery to shorten supply chains,” Basiliere added.
Basiliere also noted that for such companies, working in politically unstable locations, getting kit through customs can itself be an ‘expensive’ affair. As such, the ability to make pieces on site could save thousands.
There are even sites such as 'e-nabling' that use crowd-sourced funds to design and build prosthetic body parts using 3D printers. This is an approach that Dr Albert Chi, Trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has said could revolutionise this area of medicine.
“E-nable's collaborative approach to design and democratisation of 3D-printed prostheses could significantly improve millions of lives worldwide," he said.
"Now is the time to bring these technologies and practices into mainstream medicine.” The organisation is hosting its first conference on the subject in late September at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Another organisation called Not Impossible Labs took a 3D printer to Sudan to help produce limbs for those injured by war in the country. See the video at the bottom of this article for more on the project.
Such uses underline the growth of 3D printing that has taken place in the past few years, creating a vibrant, exciting market.
Canalys senior analyst Tim Shepherd agrees, noting in a recent report that 3D printing has reached an “inflection point” and is gaining traction all the time.
“It [3D printing] has now moved from a new and much-hyped, but largely unproven, manufacturing process to a technology with the ability to produce real, innovative, complex and robust products,” he said.
An expanding market
Clearly for such industries the benefits of 3D printing are there to see, but for the consumer world this is less clear. "There is no compelling application for home use of 3D printers yet," noted Basiliere. "There may be something by around 2016, but we don't what this is yet."
Another aspect that may be holding back 3D printing technology for the home is the fact most people would be hard pressed to name a 3D printer firm.
They are out there, as V3 has seen, such as Velleman with its K8200 3D printer for £699 (pictured) or the RepRapPro Ormerod from RS Components. But it’s fair to say these brands have hardly moved beyond the preserve of hobbyists or ahead-of-the-curve companies.
HP, a stalwart of the printer world, could change that. It has promised big announcements this year around 3D printing as it looks to radically improve the technology, as CEO Meg Whitman outlined.
“3D printing has a lot of buzz and hype in the marketplace but there are two major problems with 3D printing. Have you ever watched a 3D printer print? It’s like watching ice melt,” she said.
HP has since promised that its efforts in this space will be on show before the end of the year. Shepherd from Canalys said the rise of 3D printing in firms like HP will have a big impact on the market.
Time to prepare
HP and others such as Canon or Xerox will likely focus on the business market, to sell to existing users, but their arrival could cause business as yet unconvinced by 3D printing to sit up and take notice, as Basiliere from Gartner notes.
"The entry of 2D printer manufacturers into the market will help ratify the market for many consumers and business people because they’ll associate the brand from 2D paper printing and think they can make quality 3D printers too," he said.
Conversely, for businesses that are already using 3D printing, it was probably the buzz around the consumer 3D printing market that turned them onto its potential. “The hype that began around three years ago awoke senior mangers to the fact the industry had evolved and had become more than just prototyping,” Basiliere said.
However companies start considering 3D printing, there are now many potential uses to convince them to part with the cash for a unit and start experimenting.
McKinsey & Company listed numerous benefits of 3D printing in a report in January. These benefits ranged from improved product-development cycles to new manufacturing strategies, and making it easier for startups to get finished products to market.
"The advantages of 3D printing over other manufacturing technologies could lead to profound changes in the way many things are designed, developed, produced, and supported," it said in its report.
Then again, as the report also notes, the rise in 3D printers is creating ethical, moral and regulatory dilemmas, as seen with 3D-printed gun parts. This is something Interpol has warned about and UK police claimed to have found in a raid in Manchester last year.
Perhaps the wait for 3D printing to reach the mainstream is not without its silver linings then as, for once, those outside the technology sector may be able to keep pace with developments and have policies in place to deal with issues it creates.
For the majority, though, there will be the hope 3D printing and the benefits it offers – from businesses to healthcare and in the home – arrives faster than the five-year time frame most envision. Given the benefits on offer it may well do just that.
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