3D printing: The hype, the hopes, the hurdles

At the Techonomy conference, industry leaders discuss the future of three-dimensional printing -- and how the technology will change markets forever.

Andrew Nusca Special to CNET News
Andrew Nusca is the editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor at ZDNet. He has written for New York, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics, and Money. He is based in New York.
Andrew Nusca
8 min read
Geomagic's Ping Fu, Shapeways' Peter Weijmarshausen and PARC's Stephen Hoover spoke at the Techonomy conference in Tucson, Ariz. CNET's Paul Sloan moderated. Asa Mathat/Techonomy

MARANA, Ariz. - Three-dimensional printing: hype, or hope?

That's the question industry leaders sought to answer at the Techonomy conference here in the sunny greater Tucson area. A panel of experts -- Geomagic's Ping Fu, Shapeways' Peter Weijmarshausen and PARC's Stephen Hoover, with CNET's own Paul Sloan moderating -- discussed the promises, pitfalls and potential of a technology that allows almost anyone to turn a digital file into a perfect copy of a physical object, from puzzle pieces to airplane wings, in materials such as plastic, metal and rubberlike polymers.

Can 3D printing change the world? Let's dive in.

The hype
Interest in the technology has increased substantially in recent years, said Weijmarshausen, whose New York-based company hosts the leading marketplace for 3D printing.

"It's incredible to see how the awareness of 3D printing has increased," he said, adding that five years ago the term was niche at best. "[But] we're still living in a bubble a little bit."

A bubble, he said, because the average person does not know (or care) what the technology means for them. Add to that the "unrealistic views" that some hold for the technology, and it becomes difficult to truly relay how important this technology is for consumer and industrial manufacturing, he said.

Fu, whose company has produced objects for toymaker Fisher-Price and aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, said the potential for the technology is still largely unknown.

"Printing goes beyond product that you can see and touch," she said. Guitars, tables, board games -- those objects can be printed today. But food, organs, bones, houses? Those "will take probably 10 years to come," she said.

"It's at the take-off point," she said.

The trend has value and meaning, said Hoover, whose Palo Alto-based organization developed a number of world-changing innovations (including laser printers, Ethernet and the graphical user interface) as a division of Xerox. "Clearly, we're before the trough of disillusionment," he said, referencing the section of the "hype cycle" coined by market research firm Gartner in which new technologies feel the sting of backlash.

Three-dimensional printing is about "democratizing design, democratizing production and automating manufacturing," Hoover said. "It means I don't have to be an expert of all these different manufacturing processes."

The hope: for businesses
Mass-manufacturing has been so predominant as a manufacturing method in the industrial age that designers have long thought about it as the only way to manufacture -- and therefore the only way to solve the problem, Weijmarshausen said.

What if you could free them to think outside the box?

"You can start solving problems that were hard to solve before," he said. "You don't need a mass market anymore to bring these products to life. You can use 3D printing to make improbable products -- products you couldn't make before."

Plus, it deeply impacts the entrenched business model of mass manufacturing. "If you can sell one, if you can make one, you're profitable. The printer doesn't care," Weijmarshausen said. "That is really cool if you're an inventor because you can put it into the market and let it decide."

Belgian company LayerWise has made an entire jaw using a 3D printing technique. Surgeons implanted it in an elderly woman. LayerWise
The hope: for individuals
Access to a three-dimensional printer could upend everyday life. Fu recounted when an employee of her company broke his arm on the way to the office. Instead of running off to a physician's office immediately, the mathematician came in and used Microsoft's $150 Kinect accessory for its Xbox gaming console to scan his injured limb. That data was relayed to one of Geomagic's designers, who designed and printed him a cast. When he arrived at the doctor's office, he walked in with a cast already in place.

"Imagine their surprise," Fu said with a smile.

The mass-market implications for 3D printing are manifold. Fu cited mobile phone cases -- imagine making custom versions the day the phone comes out, she said -- dental braces and hearing aids as examples of the technology in use today.

Five million Invisalign orthodontic braces are sold per year, customized per patient for every two weeks of treatment, she said. It took the company years to eliminate the excesses in the production process, but now the assembly line is twice as efficient as that of sports apparel manufacturer Nike -- and Nike's products aren't customized, she said.

Ditto hearing aids. "It took two years for the hearing industry to go from 100 percent manual to 100 percent 3D printing for the shell that sits in your ear," Fu said. Before, the best hearing aid maker could make just eight shells per day. Today, a high school student can make 500 per day. 

"There is no reason to outsource that job," Fu said. Plus, you can pick up the product the next day, instead of waiting months for a package to ship from an overseas manufacturer.

Weijmarshausen cited hobbyist needs -- model trains, sports games, remote controls, "anything at model scale," puzzles -- as other lucrative applications. For example, the model train enthusiasts often know exactly what part they need, but spending too much time searching for it. 

And then there are the aesthetic possibilities: what if the design aesthetic of your home's light fixtures matched your coffee cups and bowls? This is suddenly possible with 3D printing technology. 

"People will define what's relevant to them and what's important to them," Weijmarshausen said. "That's wildly different person to person. You don't need to worry about what the next trend is."

"The future of manufacturing is not making a lot of a few, but a few of a lot."

The hurdles
"One of the limitations of 3D printing is the range of materials you can print," Hoover said. There are structural uses and mechanical applications, but we're only now seeing the integration of electronics. It's something PARC is working on, Hoover said.

"Smart tags, vibration sensors, biosensors, very high-performance silicon" -- all things under development in PARC's labs. "The performance isn't as high as traditional electronics," but it works in certain cases, he said.

There's also the matter of the materials themselves. 

"Materials science is one of the laggards in 3D printing," Fu said. "Research is kind of slow."

Medical and stainless steel, composite bronze, plastic polymers and even rubber-like materials are available, but not at the same time, she said.

This glove, used in "Iron Man 2," was made using a 3D printer, and is part of a full-body suit used in some of the films live-action scenes. Objet

"In today's machine, we don't see multimaterial [applications], just biomaterial," she said. "In the future, there's no reason not to do multimaterial." 

Multimaterial objects also require computational advances that the industry hasn't yet addressed, Weijmarshausen said. For example, the STL format standard works wonderfully for single-material printable objects, but there exists no agreed-upon definition for multi-material objects.

"As a platform -- from design software through intermediaries like Shapeways to machines -- we need to solve this problem," he said. "If you can't tell us what you want, we can't do anything for you."

And then there's the hardware limitation. There are three major areas of manufacturing: formative ("casting"), subtractive ("milling") and additive ("3D printing"). All work wonderfully on their own, but "to make a complex product, you need all three," Fu said. "There's not an easy way to cross those boundaries right now."

But there's ample opportunity for innovation here, Hoover said.

"There are a lot of job shops out there that can do small-lot production," he said, citing machine centers, laser cutting centers, sheet metal bending centers. "If you want to make a product that uses all those manufacturing processes, you have to be a manufacturing engineer." 

But what if you had artificial intelligence to navigate that for you? Hoover said PARC is working on techniques "to really create a virtual supply chain, create an intelligent design agent to help you make that product." Three-dimensional printing is just one part of "the supply chain of the future," Hoover said. "It really is a grand challenge in procurement for the defense industry."

Ultimately, "this is a classic digitization-democratization play," Hoover said. "Every digital industry has gone through it. Why would this one be different?"

Next steps
For now, 3D printing will remain a prosumer pursuit. Four companies control most of the market for serious 3D printers, though companies like MakerBot are making inroads with enthusiasts.

The quality of those machines may not be as good, but "it gets people excited," Fu said. "The PC was not that good [when it first came out] either. But it got better."

Hoover said new economies could be built on the back of the technology. "There aren't a lot of Fortune 500 companies today in the United States who make manufacturing equipment," he warned. "A lot of the money may not be in manufacturing equipment, but in the service bureaus and the materials."

"We should be thinking: how do we keep at the state of the art?" he asked, citing United States' lost leadership in machine tools. "Making these systems will not be the million-dollar market."

Fu was optimistic about the global ripple effects of 3D printing technology.

"All markets in the future will be niche markets," she said. "Twenty-first century manufacturing is going to be on-demand."

Weijmarshausen concurred. "It's going to be hard to see mass-market [manufacturing] as traditional," he said. "The whole [notion of] hypes and trends is going to be diminished with [this] freedom."

Plus, the life cycle of products will change because designers can iterate faster. It's just like when software moved from the retail store to the web, Weijmarshausen said -- you have continuous user feedback on your product, and you can geographically localize products, too.

And that's all without mentioning the massive implications for the medical devices market, where personalization is everything. "That kind of stuff is so obvious to me to have an enormous impact," he said. Still, he admitted: "The consumer side of things is just as exciting, though it's less easy to predict."

Fu interjected: "Shoes! Why should we all search for a pair that fits?" The panel's audience laughed, breaking into spontaneous, knowing applause.

The same goes for that ever-elusive pair of jeans that fit, Fu said. What if you could get scanned for the perfect pair? 

"In 10 years, all of the jean shops will go to the museum," she said. "And people will think, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you used to buy jeans that way.' "

The possibilities for 3D printing are almost endless. "You go from life-saving to lifestyle," she said. "That's the evolution."

Doesn't that sound a lot like hype?

"I believe that advanced manufacturing is coming, on-demand manufacturing is coming, and it's going to be a very significant 21st century advancement," Fu said. "I don't think what's happening is hype. It's basically 15 years' worth of overnight success."