AUSTIN, Texas -- The future of 3D printing, a technology that's rapidly maturing and enabling a wide variety of people and companies to rapidly design and create physical products, is very bright.
That was the conclusion of a panel of experts who spoke at SXSW yesterday: while there are certainly limitations to the technology, the opportunities that 3D printing offers everyone from garage entrepreneurs to large corporations will be be plentiful, and often economically advantageous.
Today, the technology is already considered one of the hottest around, but during the talk -- which was moderated by CNET's Rich Brown -- panelists Scott Summit, founder of; Avi Reichental, CEO of , and Alice Taylor, CEO of Makie Labs, suggested that there is quite a bit more upside than is generally known.
Brown broke the session, appropriately titled "The Future of 3D Printing," into three sections. The first was a discussion on the business opportunities of the future. The second was on intellectual-property issues surrounding the technology. And finally, the panelists discussed why 3D printing is worth pursuing.
Reichental set the stage for the session by pointing out that while many might think 3D printing isn't a mature production technology, every in-ear hearing device for the deaf or hard-of-hearing that's made today is manufactured using 3D printing techniques. Similarly, he said, many parts used in unmanned aerial vehicles, and about 90 parts used on military F-18s are 3D printed. Indeed, he added, 3D Systems -- the world's largest 3D printing technology company -- has a grant from the U.S. Air Force to help get the service's next jet, the F-35, to 900 3D printed parts.
Both Summit and Taylor alluded to the fact that they were able to get their businesses off the ground with little up-front capital, and without the requirements for substantial time-to-market and inventory that can be prohibitive for traditional small business startups. "Those are three areas that have become irrelevant when you have a 3D printing business model," Summit said. "You can have zero inventory, and the cost to risk goes to zero."
Taylor added that because 3D printing goes hand in hand with computational power in the cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics, ubiquitous inexpensive and highly accurate sensors, and the ability to digitize almost anything, "we live in one of the most exciting periods in history" for people wanting to start companies without needing to invest a lot of money.
Brown then turned the discussion to intellectual property. There has been quite a bit of discussion recently about the fact that because 3D printing relies on digital files that can be easily passed between people, there is little way for rights-holders to control who prints what.
As an example, Brown pointed out that while Yoda is one of the most-cherished characters from the "Star Wars" universe, it is easy to download a Yoda 3D model file from places like's online Thingiverse collection. The question was, is this bad for Disney (which owns the "Star Wars" franchise)?
"I live by the ethos of (publisher) Tim O'Reilly," Taylor said. "He says, 'any creative output author needs to fear obscurity more than piracy. If people are pirating your product, it means you're popular."
More to the point, she argued that people creating 3D printed Yoda heads for things like pencil holders are likely not hurting Disney's bottom line. Similarly, while Makie Labs' business is built around the production of 3D printed dolls, Taylor said she's not worried if someone illegitimately scans one of the dolls and makes their own. "If someone scans one of our dolls, they're [only] scanning that one doll," she said. "But each one is unique, and they don't get the underlying geometry" that is the heart of Makie Labs' intellectual property.
Summit agreed and suggested that any piracy risks faced by businesses built around 3D printing pale in comparison to what businesses relying on traditional manufacturing face. "The moment you take your [traditional] tooling off to Asia [to be manufactured]," Summit said, "you relinquish your IP. When you're 3D printing something...it's a unique instantiation every time, and it's really hard to rip off."
New possibilities, dangers
These days, one of the most talked-about 3D printing topics is whether it will soon be possible for people to download files for fully functional firearms. Brown pointed out that to many people, this is a very unsettling idea, but that others, most notably Cody Wilson of , one of the chief proponents of 3D printed guns, want to disrupt the idea of government regulating guns.
To Taylor, that national conversation may be a bit premature. "I feel like it's going to be easier for at least a decade to go and buy a gun off the shelf," Taylor said. "I think this is a problem of the future, but it's a long way away."
Weapons aside, the panelists agreed that 3D printing makes many things possible that until now were too difficult, and opens up opportunities and creative outlets for people who would not have had them in the past.
Brown brought up the topic of, a startup that has been working on 3D printed meat and leather. These may be long-term projects, but it raises the potential for a future without as much need for giant cattle ranches and the resources that are required to run them, Brown said.
For Summit, an important thing to consider about 3D printing and similar digital-era technologies is what they mean for young people who now have far more opportunity -- and things to fuel their imagination -- than kids have had in the past. Instead of playing video games throughout their childhood, kids can be working on creative projects and be well on their way to being rocket scientists without even realizing that they're learning, he said.
Voxel manufacturing and beyond
Before concluding the session, the panelists touched on some possible future directions 3D printing might go in. Taylor noted that today, the technology is at the top of the "hype cycle" but that it still has significant limitations -- including that producers can work only with materials available for the machines.
But Reichental said that 3D Systems machines already work with more than 100 different materials, and enable everything from wax for jewelry to rubberlike materials to composites that can be used under the hood in automobiles to various metals and alloys.
Reichental also touched on the idea of 4D printing -- a new technology in which 3D printers can essentially construct themselves -- and even 5D printing, or voxel manufacturing, in which elements of production can be added, arranged, rearranged, and even deconstructed by a machine.
The panel concluded with a number of audience questions, and the agreement between the panelists that 3D printing is a technology that presents the world with a great deal of potential, despite a variety of limitations. Today, consumer-grade printers can be had for $1,200, but no one expects those machines to be capable of printing professional quality products. Instead, expensive machines are still being used for such purposes. But the cheaper devices are more frequently being used to prototype products before they're turned over to the high-end printers. And that means companies with smaller budgets can do much of their prototyping work themselves before sending off digital files to those with professional-grade machines.
What does it all mean? It's hard to say exactly, but one thing is clear: 3D printing opens up more doors for production than have ever been open in the past. Those who learn how to use the technology will get a leg up on their traditional-production-method competitors, and those willing to bet on the future will be able to take their projects and businesses places that they never could have before.