Inside 3D Printing San Diego: Hod Lipson Discusses the Next 25 Years of 3D Printing


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Tyler Benster

Inside 3D Printing San Diego is here. The conference, tied in as the Frontier Tech Forum alongside RoboUniverse and Virtual Reality Summit, officially kicked off this morning in San Diego. To open the show, Asimov Ventures‘ Tyler Benster took to the podium to welcome attendees and present an overview of what we can expect to see over the next two days.

“This term, frontier tech, has really taken off in the last few years,” Benster said. “At Inside 3D Printing we are particularly excited to explore the paradigm switch from rapid prototyping to final production.”

Ahead of the first keynote of the conference, Benster welcomed to the stage Graham Bredemeyer, Founder of Collider, as his company is set to come out of stealth at this event, as well as Turlif Vilbrandt, CTO of Uformia, to introduce us to The Nature Game, which will be taking place here based on Alan Turing’s famous test.

“We’ve been developing a technology over the last 18-24 months,” Bredemeyer told us of their new offering, which will be on display with the first production machine on the showroom floor. “It’s a hybrid technology — continuous DLP technology and traditional plastic casting technology.”

Following these overviews of the show, Hod Lipson took to the stage for his opening keynote, “3D Printing: The Next 25 Years.” We’ve been looking forward to this presentation for months now, and of course Lipson did not disappoint. In order to look 25 years into the future of 3D printing, Lipson began first with a look 25 years back into the history we are building from.


Hod Lipson

“I like to see where things are going and what patterns emerge in where they are going,” he began.

Drawing back to 1983, when “3D printing was alive and well back then” and “a lot has had to happen since then,” Lipson noted that “3D graphics, CAD, the internet — a lot of things play into this technology before it can become what it is today.” A major aspect of the growth of the 3D printing industry over the last decade in particular has been seen in the hype curve, which has seen reflections in both tumultuous stock prices and in a loss of faith, the feeling that “the revolution ain’t happening.”

“Companies come and go, but what’s behind the scenes is the industry itself,” Lipson explained. “Stocks rise and fall, and the industry itself is averaging 35% growth rate. The growth is exponential.”

Looking back just one decade, Lipson pointed out that we saw a major inflection point around 2005, when smaller-scale 3D printers first began to appear on the scene, from Fab@Home and RepRap.

“They didn’t disrupt the big technologies, they just made it more accessible,” he said.

That accessibility has been a major boost to the growth of the industry itself, as with the technology reaching more individuals from a younger age, we are seeing growth in the toolboxes given to our next generations.

“Creating the new generation of designers, who we’re seeing in universities today,” Lipson said. “These new engineers are going to sweep the industry in the next couple of years.”

Lipson drew next to several key trends in the market, and where we’ll be seeing the business moving next. From materials to scale to applications, 3D printing is poised indeed for additional adoption across the board. A significant focus lately has of course been in metal technologies, as Lipson explained:

“Just like we’ve seen the market shakeout in plastic printers, we’re going to see that next in metal printing. We’re seeing a new wave of metal printers that is going to disrupt the industry — not so much taking away the business of established businesses but creating an even larger pie. There are many companies that want to use metal printing but can’t afford it, they are waiting on the sidelines.”


Any Materials

“We’re seeing an expansion of new materials. New processes, new materials keep coming out. In 2005, we could print in any material we wanted as long as it was a photopolymer. You could even choose the color, as long as it was a yellowish, translucent plastic. Now you go to a company and ask, Can you print in material X? They say yes, but ask about the market,” Lipson explained. “We’re seeing anything from cheese to gold.”

Any Scale

“Microscale, nanoscale — we’re talking at printing at sub-micron resolution — all the way up to architectural scale, to building scale,” Lipson said. “Not all of these systems are commercial, but we’re definitely seeing people explore these technologies.”

Any Field

“We’re seeing this technology worm its way into every field, not just engineering. My favorite is robotics,” he noted. “We’re seeing this in fields now where if 10 years ago you had asked, ‘Is 3D printing relevant to you,’ they would say, ‘It is not.’…In classrooms, empowering kids to make things. We see growth in the area of bioprinting, using live cells. It used to be this crazy idea that only a few academics dared to try, now we’re seeing this whole industry focused on this area of printing live cells, the FDA is seeking to understand how to regulate this. And of course one of my favorite areas to work on is food printing. It was controversial when we started working on it in 2006, we thought it was this kind of frivolous thing, we can print the Cornell ‘C’ inside a cookie. It turns out that food printing might eventually be the killer app. Most people don’t make anything at home except food, most people don’t have a factory at home except their kitchen.”

Exponential Trends

“When you look at trends, it can be hard to tell if something’s long-term or if it’s just a fad,” Lipson noted, affirming that he feels 3D printing is certainly a long-term trend that is seeing exponential growth.

Expansion in additive manufacturing draws strength from its foundation of disruption, and Lipson detailed his thoughts on eight key points of disruption that benefit the industry:

  • Disruption 1: Complexity is free
  • Disruption 2: Variety is free
  • Disruption 3: No assembly required
  • Disruption 4: Zero lead time
  • Disruption 5: Zero constraints
  • Disruption 6: Zero skill manufacturing
  • Disruption 7: Compact, portable manufacturing
  • Disruption 8: Less waste by-product


What’s Next?

“We’re in the biggest growth in these charts, looking at the industry trends, from the growth of functional parts,” Lipson stated, underscoring a significant trend we’ve been seeing come to light lately. He noted a figure from the 2015 Wohlers Report, in which 29% of AM activity was for production parts: “This number is the number to watch.”

“We’re seeing new technologies,” he continued. “HP finally released their final 3D printer to make printing faster, cheaper, and better. We’re seeing claims about speed, robustness of materials (Carbon), feedback-control printers that don’t just print open-loop. They watch, they learn, and learning from the printing process is important as we expand the range of materials. I can’t tell you how important that is when we print with food materials; you think printing in titanium is difficult, try printing in cookie dough and butter. We now use food printers to teach control.”

From here, we began to turn to the future, as Lipson explained that we are now at the first of four phases of technology as we took a longer-term view of the industry.

Episode I: Printing Shape and Form

“Any shape you can imagine, and describe to a computer, you can make. We are now at a point where our imagination and our design tools are the problem. Our CAD tools aren’t keeping pace, our design tools aren’t keeping pace with technology. One important trend will be for software to catch up with technology. AI as a designer: in the future, you can go to your printer and tell it parameters and have it design it for you. Design has become a dialogue between you the customer and the printer. This is how future design software will look like. We can’t rely on point-and-click design as we do today.”

Episode II: New Materials

“What I’m talking about is creating new materials on the printer, not just blending or making a part from multiple materials, but actually creating materials on the printer. Metamaterials here. If you combine two materials in lots of different ways, it’s hard to predict what their properties will be. The pattern matters.”

Episode III: Printing Integrated Active Systems

“Metal, titanium, plastic, cheese — they’re all passive parts. Active parts move, compute; the goal is ultimately to print a full robot. Synthetic muscles. I’m hoping pretty soon we’ll be able to print a robot that can walk out of the printer. It’s all about integrated systems. People keep asking if you can print a cell phone. Stop asking that. We printed something similar, a full telegraph machine. Not quite a cell phone, but an electroactive system. Another example, a 100% 3D printed loudspeaker. I confess this is a lousy and expensive loudspeaker, but it was completely 3D printed. When you can embed electronics in a 3D print, all bets are off. Our goal is for a robot to walk right out of a printer, batteries included.”

Episode IV: From Analog to Digital

20161214_095741“I’m talking 20, 30 years into the future. Everything you see on the screen is made of pixels, it’s made of small building blocks, and that’s true for all technologies. Digital technologies are made of small bits. What would happen if one day we transitioned physical things from being made of a continuous material to being made of small building blocks? Printing with discrete building blocks, tiny Lego blocks if you like. We already make buildings out of bricks, that idea of making things out of building blocks is well-established and we can bring that into the printing realm as well. Physical voxels.”

Overall, Lipson’s keynote kicked off this conference on a pretty optimistic note. As we begin to see 3D printing technologies truly take their place in manufacturing, particularly of production components, we can see the patterns he spoke of indeed emerging. Lipson concluded by noting that industrial revolutions are “all about going back to zero” and that that is when this way of manufacturing will have truly reached maturity and market acceptance.

“Some technologies don’t follow the curve of perception, the hype cycle,” he said. “We see these previous revolutions were all about going back to zero. No one looked back and said, ‘Steam engines were a hype.’ Cost of computation went to zero in the ’70s, and that again created a cascade of new industries. Third industrial revolution, the cost of communication went to zero. Now we send terabytes across the planet and don’t think twice about whether they will get there on time. What is going down to zero for 3D printing? A lot of things, and that’s what’s going to drive this forward.”

[All photos taken by Sarah Goehrke for]

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