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All Aboard: The 3D Revolution is Spreading Around the World

By Andrea Kuhn, Butel Graphic Communication | 12.18.13

Messe Düsseldorf and the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) announce launch of the 3D fab+print brand.

Almost unnoticed, revolutionary production technologies have emerged without any substantial input from big players. Instead, the initiatives came from researchers, small start-ups and tinkerers in their garages who experimented with printing three-dimensional material.

As is often the case with technical revolutions, the “movement“ thrives on its early protagonists’ enthusiasm, in this case mostly middle-aged male tech aficionados and a complementary open-source community. These so-called “makers” advocate the trend toward personal production and the networking of things. Idealists dream of re-possessing the means of production by the “masses”, tech enthusiasts about the triumph of self-replicating machinery. The excitement of a new age together with gold rush-like optimism is obvious, notwithstanding that many young businesses soon will join the corporate world, fairly quickly abandoning their open-source ideals en route.

Still, 3D printing is not without history. Long before the internet changed the world, laser-based processes for industrial applications had been developed, e.g. for the manufacturing of prototypes and models to be used in the production of limited numbers of work pieces and building components. In contrast to standard injection molding processes, 3D printing bypasses the labor-intensive set-up of jigs, together with the various processes of cutting, lathing and drilling.

It’s an undeniable fact that the 3D revolution’s social and economic effects are noticeable. In times where the life cycle of products continues to decrease while the number and variety of products continually expands, the tirelessly working printing robots producing complex objects at precision levels unmatched by man-made efforts, are just what is needed now.

  Especially in the field of tool system technology, construction component production, medical device technology and the consumer goods industry, 3D print technology is of great importance. For this reason, Messe Düsseldorf and the VDMA decided to launch the 3D fab+print in October 2013 during K 2013 (the international trade show for plastics and rubber). Under its umbrella, all relevant Düsseldorf trade shows will in the future bring together their respective exhibitors with the goal of bringing this topic closer to the trade audience’s focus. Theme related trade shows featuring 3D fab+print will be drupa (May 31 - June 10, 2016), COMPAMED (November 12 - 14, 2014) held concurrently with MEDICA (November 12 - November 15, 2014) as well as GIFA, METEC, THERMPROCESS and NEWCAST (June 16 - 20, 2015).

Consequences of the 3D revolution

3D printing not only replaces, reconfigures and complements traditional processes, but accelerates innovation since an instant creation of solid prototypes and tangible templates has numerous benefits. In the consumer sphere, unit costs of mass-produced articles will always stay below those of customized manufactured ones, yet at the very margins, some share of the manufacturing process may well be taken over by the consuming public itself. It would hardly be a loss for the economy, since these unaffiliated manufacturers still need 3D technology besides materials and support….at the same time creating brand new lines of business, e.g. printing services for those who are reluctant to invest in a 3D printer themselves. We all recall the fantastic rates for a square foot of digital printing on fabrics back in its early years.

Growing pains

Hewlett Packard was the first of the large press manufacturers to enter the 3D printer business. Between 2010 and 2012, the US IT company struck an alliance with Israeli-American Stratasys. The result were devices with the names HP Designjet 3D and HP Designjet Color 3D, which however are no longer on the market. Now, HP is about to start a second attempt.

Meg Whitmann, HP’s CEO, made it a point to personally announce the initiative: “3D printers are still in their infancy”, stated Whitman. “It’s a great opportunity and we are very much committed. By the middle of next year, we will have something to show.” The strength of HP’s conviction may be somewhat debatable, though, since Ms Whitman stressed that actual revenue flow from the sector to the bottom line is a long way off. Indeed, patience is the order of the day, not the least because the costs of efficient 3D printers remain out of reach for many, as is the raw printing material, the variety and selection of which still leaves much to be desired. In addition, the currently available machines run at an agonizingly slow pace. 

Whithman described it thus: “To print a bottle may take eight to ten hours. All quite interesting, but it feels like watching grass grow.” The hope for these growing pains to soon be a thing of the past seems to be justified, however. 3D printing is more than a pipe dream, it is a veritable revolution of production technology. Right now, 3D printing is mostly limited to CAD supported laser cutters, lathes or injection molding machines, yet new ideas have benefited all industries over time. Incorporating 3D printing into the canon of printing technologies as a fourth pillar next to letterpress, offset and digital print is the right thing to do; with all its consequences. At universities, in vocational training classes, associations and especially in companies.

Online print shops print on unusual objects such as Christmas ornaments and coffee mugs. Therefore it makes sense to also create certain objects according to customer wishes as the infrastructure and skilled labor is already in place. A realistic prospect to profit handsomely is certainly there. The time is now to define and hone business models. The potential of it all is reflected when taking a look at the shares of Stratasys. Ten years ago, they sold for $7.58. Today, they change hands for $114 and an end to the rally is nowhere in sight.

Market survey

Getting started with 3D printing is relatively easy. Building sets and equipment for beginners are available for around 300 Euro. Professional machines sell for 3,000 Euro and up. But these machines, being used in industrial applications, are under a great deal of pricing pressure. Analogous to 2D printing equipment, three categories of machinery have also emerged in the 3D sector: for home use, for professionals, and for industrial application. Two dozen manufacturers from all over the world are currently offering solutions for the press floor. Most of them were inspired by the RepRap project, originally conceived by Adrian Bowyer, a professor for evolutionary research at Bath University in England.

RepRap stands for Replicating Rapid-Prototyper and is a 3D printing press, the blueprint of which Bowyer published under a GNU general public license with the goal to achieve rapid proliferation. Vendors like Ultimaker and Makibox follow in its footsteps. The best-known American manufacturer of 3Dprinters, Makerbot in New York, used to be a non-profit organization. Since 2013, it is a subsidiary of Stratasys and the current 3D printer model Replicator 2, unlike previous models, no longer bears any resemblance to the open source matrix.

The English manufacturer Bits from Bytes was also bought. The company started with the 3D printer RapMan, a commercial version of the open source hardware RepRap Darwin. In October 2010, the company was taken over by the leader in the consumer sector, the American company 3D Systems. The South Carolina based organization is currently teeming with activity. Resources for research and production at their main plant in Rock Hill are at the limit of their capacities; for those reasons, 3D Systems plans an additional site creating up to 133 new jobs.

In the professional sector, Stratasys is the undisputed worldwide leader. The company has two head offices in Eden Prarie (Minnesota, USA) and Rehovot (Israel) in addition to six branch offices, one of them in Rheinmünster, Germany. Stratasys’ product range extends from popular-priced desktop 3D printers all the way to large state-of-the-art 3D production systems. With 150 photo polymers and thermo plastics, it also features the largest assortment of special materials.

World leader for industrial applications in the sector laser sintering is the EOS GmbH in Krailling near Munich/Germany. Dr. Hans J. Langer and Dr. Hans Steinbichler founded the company in 1989. It supplies customers like MTU, EADS, Daimler and BMW with 3D-printers for their production sites. China supports its 3D printer industry through TierTime Technology Co. Ltd., founded 2003 in Beijing. Their devices are marketed under the name Inspire. In short: whether high-end products, one of a kind, or small-scale series - the capabilities of 3D printers are advanced enough right now to perform many conceivable and as yet inconceivable tasks.

One principle, many processes

3D printing, also known as "Rapid Prototyping" or "Additive Manufacturing", is based on the layering principle, an additive process by which the objects to be printed are built layer upon layer from several liquid or powder-like substances. In its course, chemical and/or physical processes precipitating curing and/or melting take place. For those reasons, the typical materials used are artificial resins, plastics, metals, ceramics and paper.

Manufacturers currently use a number of 3D print processes, which in their application are fundamentally alike except for a few patented variations. Among the most notable processes employed are selective laser melting, electron beam melting for metals, selective laser sintering for plastics, stereo lithography, digital light processing, polyjet modeling for photopolymers and fused deposition modeling for thermoplastics. Most 3D printers currently process only a single type of material or some kind of combination. There have been tests, though, to use plastics with different degrees of hardness and color in a combined printing process. Industry giant Stratasys got a patent for a variation of layering by melting, the FDM technology (fused deposition modeling). The FDM process melts delicate, semi-liquid strands of the thermoplastic acrylnitril-butadiene-styrol (ABS) with a spray nozzle, piling layer upon layer to eventually assume the final object’s shape. The PolyJet technology deploys photopolymers which are instantly cured under UV light and indistinguishable from products made by injection molding.