It seems like only yesterday, the newspapers were raving about how 3D printing technology can change the world. It looked promising in the eyes of investors, professional and amateur users. In fact, the technology has been around for ages, but focused on specific industries. It first arrived in the late 1980s and was called Rapid Prototyping. Attention was centered around industrial applications and there was little sign that, one day, 3D printing would grow to what we see now.
The demand for the 3D printing technology has grown over only a couple of years. According to Statista, back in 2014, the global market size for 3D printing associated materials, technology and services, was valued at $3.8 billion. In the course of 4 years, the situation is set to change significantly, with the same forecast predicting an increase to $16.2 billion by 2018.
Since the 80s, a lot has changed. In 2015, we have seen noticeable improvements in the quality, speed and abilities of 3D printing technology. The variety of products that can be printed has become wider. At the start, even though 3D printing technology sounded revolutionary, the capabilities were limited and the quality of the products were far from perfect. There is still a long way to go, but materials such as plastic-like nylon, carbon fiber, and fiberglass have improved the situation considerably.
One of the reasons why 3D printing technology was a dark horse for a while is the fact that it's been busy disrupting the manufacturing industries. It is only now that printers and associated materials have become accessible for a wider audience.
It is not only the manufacturing industry that appreciates the advantages of 3D printing technology. Nowadays, the printers are comparatively common, especially amongst the design focussed. The trend is creating 3D printing as a hobby, where people use the technology to create all kinds of things related to, for example, entertainment, art, education, medical needs and more. People can now create their own models at home, and it doesn't take a specialist or extraordinary skills to do so.
Currently, the biggest 3D printing players are 3D Systems and Stratasys. 3D Systems has the advantage having invented 3D-printing although Stratasys is rapidly growing. The growth is linked to the recent acquisition of MakerBot Industries, which has managed to transform the technology into a well-known brand.
Now is the time to disrupt new markets and that's exactly what MakerBot have been doing. They offer 3D printers, accessories and PLA filaments of different colors to appeal to a variety of audiences. The service also offers convenient apps for desktop and mobile. They also utilize an eco-friendly approach, for instance, the PLA filament used is a biodegradable aliphatic polyester, extracted from renewable resources such as corn starch, sugarcane and tapioca roots. This reduction in carbon footprint is a big plus since an increasing number of people are concerned with environmental issues in their manufacturing processes.
However, there are also downsides to 3D printers. According to a study from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the printers seem to be harmful to our health. The emissions from the desktop versions are similar to cigarettes or cooking on a gas stove as the burned PLA particles can settle in the lungs and the bloodstream and may cause complications with breathing and worsen asthma. Another serious issue is gun control as the first gun was successfully printed in 2013, raising concerns over public safety. Law enforcement agencies say they are monitoring developments, yet, society and anti-gun campaigners are not convinced yet.
Undoubtedly, 3D printing technology is creating many opportunities and is having a significant impact on many industries and the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. However, the non-technological consequences are yet to be thoroughly researched, which is a risk that may cause issues in the future. As time goes on, the technology will become more user-friendly and cost-effective, it is currently exciting and scary but the future of the industry is something to look forward to.