3D Printing: market overview and analysis

 

Note from author: I’m far from being an expert on 3D Printing. I’m just quite interested in that field and periodically take time to stay informed. So just consider below article as my point of view on that subject.

Since a decade now, not a day without tweets, news, blog articles or editorials on the « future » 3D printing revolution, the new industrial revolution…

But, now, Nov. 2016, what is the situation ?

As from now, 3D Printing was mainly used in University, startups and industrial companies for research and prototyping purpose. I can see three main reasons for that:

  • Printing time: it actually took around 5-6 hours to print a 30 cm object (45mm/h) – with important variations depending on printing technology used, layer thickness, type of materials, object complexity, etc…
  • Material prices: more or less like for traditional ink printers, the trap is not with the machine itself but with consumables (printing filament). Around 50€ / 1 kg. Lot of material waste as printer settings were no easy to set.
  • Inability to mix different type of materials and colors on the same production run: for the general public 3D printing is still equivalent of uni-colored small pieces of plastic most of time really fun but mainly useless

Time are changing fast nowadays:

  • Companies like Airbus are now using 3D Printing for maintenance purpose and innovations on cabin design. 3D printing, by allowing creating complex forms in different types of materials, help reducing weight and by consequence fuel consumption. 3D printing is now financially efficient, profitable.
  • Companies are innovating on raw printing materials: metals, plastics, resins, etc… For a quick overview have a look at this article.
  • Environment: of course plastic used and wasted can be recycled – look at this filament recycling machine. Some companies are also working to build 100% ecological efficient materials from organic waste. Clean and safe for humans and environment. Ready for circular economy or upcycling. See this article.
  • It is now common to find 3D printers enabling to mix different colored filaments. See examples of what is now possible with modern 3D printers.
  • HP has just released its new « revolutionary » 3D printer: announced as 10 time faster than all others competitors, including automatic waste management, ability to mix different materials and colors… In the closed future HP plans to play with materiel flexibility, surface translucency, …, and also make each voxel (3D equivalent of a pixel in 2D) conduct electricity. Have a look at this video presentation. Of course this is pure marketing and I’m pretty convinced that, as usual, we should divide speed figures by a two factor, but anyway we may also consider HP innovation willingness as a concrete sign that the market is now ready to adopt 3D printing at industrial level.

To finish with, a quick impact analysis vs. this « revolution »: let’s imagine that 3D printing will be adopted by all main production companies in the next 5-10 years. What would be the consequences ?

  • Of course printer and material prices will dramatically decrease. That’s a good point.
  • We can also imagine that waste will be managed more efficiently. Second good point
  • 3D printing spreading worldwide will create many designer and engineer jobs and reduce logistic and transportation volumes as it won’t be no more needed to build on one place and deliver it worldwide by trucks, planes or vessels. Also very good points.

That’ll be wonderful for the planet, reducing dramatically CO2 emission, etc… But it may also theoretically destroy lot of « unskilled » jobs.

If you consider that there are many reasons to believe that, in the same period, robots and artificial intelligence modules will replace a lot of others human managed jobs, it is certainly time for all of us to reconsider our relationship with work. Because things are moving really fast and you should consider that if 3D printing will replace and/or be included into classic industrial processes it won’t be in 20 years, nor 10 years, but in the next 3 to 5 years.

I would like to finish this small article with a global remark on future job market: if one take to time to step back, analyze what is the current situation and look at all new technology improvements, we shall certainly conclude that we are building day after day the exact opposite conditions for a return on full-employment. I personally do not imagine (nor believe) that all unskilled jobs will be replaced in the future by expert and engineers jobs in charge of adjusting robots structure or coding new algorithm for AI…

You may think that I voluntary make the strokes bolder… Just to be factual just take time to analyze the job market on US, UK or even in Germany: this trend has already started since a couple of years. Many workers are now dealing with several small different jobs in the week. This is named « precarious employment » or « poor work ». Our society should be prepared for that.

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