Home Depot, the planet’s dominant home improvement chain, made news this week by announcing that 3D printing machines would be for sale at a dozen of their locations. Is this the tipping point for a manufacturing revolution? Or is this just a PR stunt to get people into stores to buy picnic coolers, light bulbs, and hammers?
Home Depot is not the first big player to promote 3D printing technology. Staples beat Home Depot to the punch a year ago when they announced a 3D printer offering. And last year Amazon also started selling 3D printers and supplies, followed this year by a trial project wherein a handful of products are made on-demand. This past January Dell began offering a MakerBot 3D printer with Dell’s professional Precision Workstation. HP CEO, Meg Whitman, promises to announce a 3D printer late this year. Epson’s president recently said they’ll have a “compelling” 3D printer for the commercial market in five years.
The global 3D printing industry is already at $3 billion annually, having grown six-fold in a decade. It’s still expanding at a pace that inspired the dot-com-bubble phrase “irrational exuberance.” Hundreds of companies produce 3D printers now, and there are so many patents being filed that the U.S. Patent Office has announced formation of a new patent classification.
- [For those unfamiliar with this technology or looking for details on the players, markets, applications, and forecasts, I recommend the industry’s ‘bible’ from Wohlers: 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing State of the Industry. And for investors who don’t want to pick-and-chose stocks, check out the first ETF for the sector, NASDAQ:ROBO.]
There are plenty of eager investors and pundits who see 3D printers as the second coming — of the industrial revolution that is. 3D printers will, they believe, follow the trajectory of the personal computer and the home printer. No one imagined in 1974 that practically every home and schoolchild would own a computer and a printer.
There are also plenty of skeptics, who, while not buying the paradigm of revolution 2.0, nonetheless see a couple of markets for 3D printers, each in the multi-billion-dollar-class. First comes a new class of toys for young and old techies. You can print your and your significant other’s face onto custom figurines to top a wedding cake, or design your own jewelry – or hundreds of other similar forms of 3D entertainment. Games, toys, and entertainment are big businesses. But even though the 3D market might approach the scale of video games — a $100 billion dollar industry — such fun hardly changes the world.
Then there are niche markets where 3D printers enable new high-performance capabilities in research, medicine and specialized industrial products. Although this sector is well on track to becoming a multi-billion-dollar too, it’s hardly on a scale that disrupts the world’s $70 trillion economy.
This is one of those rare cases where both optimists and skeptics are right. 3D printing will, in due course, unleash a revolution — and one that reaches beyond “industrial.” But for a little while yet, it remains a niche technology. It is all about timing. In the real world, timing matters.
The right analog for the future of personal manufacturing — 3D printers — is neither the 2D text-and-picture printer, personal computer, nor video game, but the automobile.
Cars were made possible circa 1890 by the confluence of a collection of leading-edge technologies of the day, in particular the internal combustion engine, high-strength steel, and refined petroleum. For more than two decades after their invention, cars were still craft-made. It was not just mass production but also the maturation of all the constituent components, yielding lower cost, higher quality and reliability, that ‘suddenly’ enabled cars to become ubiquitous.
By 1914, with the mass-produced low-cost car, the appeal of personal transportation resulted in a 20-fold jump in car use in one decade (measured by miles driven per capita). Even though automotive transportation was still more expensive than centralized transportation (trains), cars were cheap enough and offered much more convenience and inherent economic value.
The car enabled entirely new uses for transportation, new kinds of businesses and services from drive-in restaurants to casual vacations, to the explosion of the suburbs. Meanwhile, during the first decade of automobile growth and the one that followed, rail traffic increased – a result of the broad effect of higher mobility and wealth spurred by the auto age and the broader revolution it represented.
The train continued dominance in long-distance travel until after WWII when aircraft became cheaper and reliable. By 1960 there were more passenger air-miles than rail-miles traveled per capita. (For an iconic overview of transportation history, see the 2001 article by Jesse Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti.)
Fast forward to 2014. 3D printers, invented circa 1990, have now been around for two decades. They were made possible by the confluence of key enabling technologies, notably the personal computer, high-performance precision motors, and new classes of raw materials (mostly plastics right now, metals soon). Now, with the maturation of the constituent components, 3D printers have entered the era of mass-produced rather than hobby or specialty machines. The number of 3D machines sold annually has jumped 10-fold in the past decade.
But, as with the car, most of the uses for personal manufacturing machines are found in new applications and services. Some are purely for entertainment (toys, games, etc.), some heretofore impossibilities (3D print of a scanned infant organs to allow surgeons to develop an ideal surgical procedures), and some invade niches in older domains (jewelry, customized medical implants).
Meanwhile, centralized manufacturing instead of being disrupted has embraced 3D printing. The most expansive applications are in rapidly accelerating the design and prototype process, as well as fabricating particularly complex components. 3D printing allows complex geometries with far fewer parts, since a complete assembly can be fabricated directly from a 3D computer design, instead of bolting together independently produced parts. One survey this year found that the fastest adoption of 3D printing is in large, not small, companies.
There is astounding growth potential for today’s class of 3D printers. Wohlers forecasts a $20 billion per year industry by 2020. So there is ample reason to be bullish about the market and many of the companies, from the printer makers themselves to the associated, but independent, software and services companies.
But what about the revolution that could disrupt the world’s $10 trillion centralized manufacturing industry? What is the equivalent of the aircraft that took all the growth in long-distance travel away from the train and relegated rail to a niche for bulk goods transport? The answer is the emergence of high-speed, low-cost and reliable 3D printers that work with metals.
Today, about 250 companies produce and sell the current class of 3D desktop machines costing from $500 to $5,000 each. But essentially all of those printers make plastic things. There are only about a dozen companies that make industrial-class 3D metal machines, and only hundreds of such machines are currently sold annually. And these kinds of printers won’t sit on your desktop; they’re each the size of Suburban and range from hundreds of thousands to a million dollars.
The revolution begins when metal 3D machines become cheaper, smaller, and a lot faster. They remain terribly slow today, the physics of metals being what it is. And the revolution will require collateral work from materials scientists to concoct new and lower-cost formulations of metal powders, ceramics and composites to both adapt to and take advantage of the way 3D printers heat materials. Material development is now underway precisely because such machines create the demand. One bellwether: Using a laser-based 3D printer, a German team has already fabricated a new class of structural material, a microscopic lattice of ceramic and metal, that is less dense than water and stronger than steel. Just one example, and just the beginning.
3D printing thus follows the trajectory of technology in general. The next manufacturing revolution is imminent: if not tomorrow, then soon — not in some Star Trek future.
Referring to Home Depot’s announcement to sell his company’s machine, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis cautioned: “You can’t use it as a hammer.” But we know, and doubtless Pettis knows better than most, it won’t be long before such machines make hammers, and much else.
Real revolutions, those in materials and infrastructure, don’t happen at the pace of development for video games and iPhone apps. But in 2014, they can certainly emerge as fast as the age of the automobile did one century ago.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markpmills/2014/07/16/will-home-depot-amazon-or-dell-launch-the-3d-printer-revolution/