2014: A Look Back And AheadThe 3D printing industry burst into the mainstream in 2013, but its backers say: You ain't seen nothin' yet.
The innovation on the drawing board for this fast-emerging type of manufacturing is amazing, and a little frightening. How about 3D printers making ... food? If that's not wild enough for you, how about printers being used to make major bodily organs
3D Systems (DDD), founded in 1986, pioneered the industry. It initially developed expensive 3D printers used in aerospace and automotive manufacturing to develop prototype parts, in what then was a niche market.
It's no longer a niche.
Advances in technologies and materials led to 3D printers able to create physical objects from a wide array of plastics, metals and ceramics. The process starts with a digitized 3D image of the part to be made. The printers then apply layer upon layer of materials to fabricate a physical object.
As their capabilities rose and their prices fell, 3D printers gained greater acceptance in many industries, including dental and prosthetics. And now 3D Systems, Stratasys (SSYS) and others make 3D printers for consumers.
Avi Reichental, who joined 3D Systems as president and CEO in 2003, says 3D printers could soon be used to create food or even human organs.
Reichental spoke to IBD about market trends and the future of 3D printing technology.
IBD: 3D Systems is nearly 30 years old, but only now is 3D printing hitting the mainstream. Why did it take so long
Reichental: It's due to the convergence of many capabilities and activities. You are right to say we are now an overnight success, 30 years in the making. A big part of it has to do with our passionate commitment to democratizing access to this technology, not just with lower price points but with printers having greater performance, simplicity and ease of use.
This has made 3D printing more meaningful and relevant to manufacturing applications. Another reason has to do with the convergence of exponential technologies that are adjacent to 3D printing like, for example, infinite computing power in the cloud that allows us to do things today that we could not have dreamed of five years ago.
The convergence of mobile devices has also allowed us to create an entirely different user experience. And also the convergence of things like robotics that give us additional building blocks to create increasingly more sophisticated 3D printers. Couple that with advancements in material science and a little bit of Moore's Law (Intel (INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore's theory, dating to 1970, that computing power will roughly double every two years) and you have yourself the perfect convergence of exponential technology that has fueled the adoption and awareness of 3D printing.
IBD: Where is 3D printing having the biggest impact
Reichental: For 3D Systems, the vast majority of our success is in real industrial applications, starting with aerospace and automotive. One of our fastest-growing verticals is patient-specific medical devices, from hearing aids to dental restoration to orthopedic implants. You can add to that custom jewelry manufacturing.
And in the future we have the consumer side of the opportunity that could potentially dwarf everything else in due course.
IBD: Is it true that the medical sector could someday print human tissue and organs
Reichental: It is imminently achievable. Some of the best and brightest minds globally are working on advanced R&D in quite a few universities and private organizations. They have demonstrated sufficient scientific feasibility to suggest this is not a question of if it will happen, but when and how.
Before we will print full organs, I'm certain we'll be able to print bones and create lots of trauma restoration devices, prosthetic devices that will allow people to restore symmetry and functionality to certain parts of their bodies.
IBD: There also is talk of using 3D printing technology to create food. Is that doable
Reichental: I've connected with some food companies and scientists and all of us share a vision that, at a certain point in time, some form of 3D printers will be able to print for us personalized nutritional food. I have an eye toward starting with sweets and delectables but, down the road, moving into the whole universe of personalized nutrition. It may start with simple structures like bars that will include our required daily nutrients and vitamins.
IBD: How will governments react to these kinds of advances
Reichental: I'm hoping regulators, legislatures and enforcement agencies would work collaboratively with us to understand the incredible and disruptive nature of these technologies, and to also comprehend all the unintended consequences of this technology when it is placed in the wrong hands.
What happens when you can modify an AR-15 with a printed part and turn it from a legally used weapon to an illegally used weapon that is fully automatic? What happens when you print a plastic gun? What happens when your proprietary design can be 3D-copied via a simple scan and replicated ubiquitously? What happens when counterfeiting happens at the click of a button
We need to understand that all of these possibilities are going to present enormous challenges to the current legislative and social infrastructure. The technology is moving exponentially faster than the ability of society to comprehend both the unimaginable and the unintended consequences. And we also need to understand what can and cannot be governed, and what that means to us as individuals and society.
IBD: What are the biggest breakthroughs in 3D printing technology so far
Reichental: It's what I call 3D printing 2.0, which is about several powerful trends. The first is the progression from the traditional sweet spot of 3D printing, which for the last few decades was prototyping (using the technology to create product prototypes). It's now moving to the manufacturing floor and into the consumer household.
The second is the migration from just functional devices to fully integrated ecosystems for products and platforms.
The third important trend has to do with the migration from monochromatic and mono-materials to full-color multi-materials that will enable the next generation of manufacturing. We see the whole experience in 3D printing migrating from single-purpose tools to fully connected power tools.
There is no question in our mind that a big part of what 3D Systems will do in the future is provide hosting, publishing and production platforms that will allow companies and consumers to co-create, customize and personalize a product. This could include household products, interior designs or any fashion accessory or educational device.
In 2014, we will see a faster rate of innovation. I expect we will see more sophisticated and capable manufacturing-use cases. Expect to see faster consumer adoption and applications.
IBD: How long will it be before 3D printers in the home are common
Reichental: Printers like our Cube 3D printer today retail for $1,200 and are available nationwide in chains like Staples (SPLS). And Office Depot (ODP) just announced they will roll out Cube to 150 stores. It is also available online in a variety of stores, including Amazon (AMZN). With that, we believe that greater democratization needs to happen before we have it in every household, so we are rapidly developing more content-creation tools.
IBD: Will 3D printing create an expansive growth of new business in a way similar to what the Internet did
Reichental: I think there is no question about it and you already see it today. We see companies that are enormously successful like Align Technology (ALGN), the maker of Invisalign, which is a new and disruptive way to straighten teeth. A decade ago, Align was an idea of two Stanford students that looked at one of our stereolithography 3D printers and thought they could change and disrupt the universe of teeth aligning. And they did. They created a completely new and disruptive business model.
Look at companies like MakieLab, a startup in London that is taking on the toy industry with a completely new way for young girls to design and create their own doll and have it printed and delivered to their doorstep. These kinds of businesses are harvesting the convergence of all the exponential technologies to create completely new business models.
IBD: General Electric (GE) is increasingly active in the 3D printing sector and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) said it will enter the market in 2014. What do you think about that
Reichental: We're very excited about the increased involvement and commitment of GE to this space. GE has been a very good customer and partner to 3D Systems. Their commitment is energizing and capitalizing an industrial base. That provides a great deal of opportunity to 3D Systems and we're doing a lot to support GE's efforts on many fronts.
We look at companies like HP and others showing interest in the space as validating what we are doing. We plan to maintain our leadership position and expand our first-mover advantage in key vertical markets, which is partly why we are stepping on the accelerator in terms of greater investment in R&D and marketing.
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