3D printing #1

How the technology has developed and where it might be headed

By Chris Sutton - 21.04.14

In March 2014, our Brighton Three-thinkers Business Club held an event on 3D printing. Kati Byrne, co-founder of Developing Dreams and 3Dify gave a fascinating presentation on how the technology has developed and where it might be headed in the future.

In the room were a number of local 3D printing experts as well as local entrepreneurs from a wide range of backgrounds interested in how the technology could be used. It was no surprise then, that the group discussion that followed was wide ranging looking at aspects of both running a 3D printing business as well as exploring how 3D printing might be beneficial for local businesses.

Here are my key takeaways on the topic:

  • The technology of 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) is split between high-end manufacturing where it has been around since the 1980s and consumer 3D printing which is what the current buzz is about. The technology is evolving quickly, becoming more financially accessible as it does so.
  • The main advantages of 3D printing over other manufacturing methods stem from its potential for producing highly personalised or customised designs at low cost as well its ability to render in 3D objects with very complex geometric designs.
  • There are potential environmental benefits, for example from the ability to produce goods near to their point of market or in producing replacement parts for machines very cheaply, but the technology isn’t inherently ‘green’.  I look into this in more detail in 3D printing #2 - considering social and environmental impacts.
  • The technology is as much about the design as the printing.  As with other forms of manufacturing, businesses can design in house using 3D modelling software or hire the services of professional designers. At the consumer end of the market, there are websites like shapeways and thingiverse provide basic designs that can then be customised to meet your requirements.
  • 3D printing is experiencing evolution rather than revolution. While the technology is set to touch pretty much all industries that make ‘things’, at the moment there are some limitations to its usefulness.  

    a) Materials and process: The range of materials available for smaller scale desktop 3D printing is currently fairly limited. Although wood and stone effect materials are available, the most common materials used are plastic filaments either in the form of ABS which is derived from petroleum or PLA which is made from plant derived starches.

    The speed of output from 3D printers is currently slow (2 hours+ for even a small novelty figurine), and printed items have visible lines from the layering process that need further processing. The layering process also means the printed items have a tendency to be less strong than more traditionally manufactured equivalents. [i] 

    b) Economy: The cost of 3D printers is coming down and the capabilities of 3D printing are increasing, but to be truly useful, 3D printing will need to be cheaper than other ways of making things or make new products that can’t be manufactured in other ways. This will happen but we’re not necessarily there yet.

    c) Accessibility: There aren’t yet that many suppliers (see below for suppliers in Brighton and Hove). FabLabs are likely to develop as hubs to get 3D printed items designed and manufactured and will also host other production tools such as laser and vinyl cutters and moulding and milling equipment.

  • For suppliers of 3D printing services, there is the obvious risk of investing in equipment that then becomes obsolete as new machines rapidly increase in capacity. Additionally the newness of the technology provides a challenge in finding markets for 3D printing services and explaining its application to potential customers. 

    Suppliers providing desktop 3D printing services need to target businesses most likely to benefit from the technology in its current form. While this might include early adopting businesses who derive value from being associated with an innovative technology, one area where 3D printing already demonstrates business value is in prototyping where it facilitates rapid innovation by providing a low cost way to move from a concept to a working model.[ii]

    With such a broad pool of potential services and customers, suppliers may benefit from marketing to a specific business sector in order to provide clear and context specific messaging about the services that can be provided. 

Where to go in Brighton:

www.3dify.co.uk - Creating immersive experiences with emerging technologies.

@3Dpea -  3D printing and design at the University of Brighton.

www.buildbrighton.com - A communal workshop for makers. They also run workshops on 3D printing. Sign up to their newsletter for more information.

http://fablabbrighton.org - Will be an open access workshop with various equipment including 3D printers.


Useful links:

www.developingdreams.com/blog/3devolution/ - Informative presentation on 3D printing delivered by Kati Byrne at our Three-thinkers event.

www.thingiverse.com - A design community for discovering, making, and sharing 3D printable things.

www.shapeways.com - 3D Printing marketplace and community.


Also in this blog series:

3D printing #2 - considering social and environmental impacts


[i] For a interesting blog on limitations see Nick Allen: “Why 3D Printing is overhyped: I should know I do it for a living”. May 2013. Available at http://gizmodo.com/why-3d-printing-is-overhyped-i-should-know-i-do-it-fo-508176750 (Accessed 25/03/2014).

[ii] Olson, R. (2013) ‘3D Printing – A Boon or a Bane’. The Environmental Forum. Vol.30. No.6. November/December 2013. p35