Reality Check: Is “Additive Manufacturing” Still Niche Jargon?

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The Materialise World Summit last week in Brussels was a remarkable event, filling two complete days with some of the brightest minds in additive manufacturing. The hyper-focused nature of the conference ensured that all attendees had a real reason to be there, and the intent from the Materialise team on assembling a gathering of quality rather than a larger-attended quantity-focused event, came across at every bend. While Materialise itself is nearing in on three decades of experience in the barely-older 3D printing industry and many of the companies and attendees have been involved through much of the industry’s lifespan, some present were also newer to the space and came to learn from those with experience and expertise. We often refer to 3D printing as a still-nascent industry, and certainly there is always still something for everyone to learn as the relatively new technology continues to advance at exponential rates. Indeed, the annual growth seen in additive manufacturing can only be reflective of a young industry, as double-digit annual gains are representative of significant advances from a small base — small because it’s new.

3D printing is getting into nearly every industry; at MWS17 alone, sessions focused on healthcare, eyewear, automotive parts, aerospace components, railroad spare parts, and many others. We often see 3D printing making waves in unusual ways, from nostalgic just-for-fun creations to functional and even mass-produced footwear to viable 3D printed blood vessels. With the expansive array of uses where additive manufacturing is making an impact, and with so many in the industry so wholly immersed into this world, it can be easy to forget to ask one simple question: is this still a niche?

Visible: maybe one-third of the diners gathered.

At MWS17, nearly 700 people each familiar with at least some aspects of the additive manufacturing world shared their insights and visions for the future of the business in formal sessions and in casual conversation. Indeed, some of the most enlightening conversations I had during my week in Belgium were over dinner at a Materialise-organized event that took over half a restaurant, in which over wine and some truly excellent crème brûlée my table-mates expanded on ideas regarding potential acquisitions, hidden pain points of promising technology, and what it might take for software to catch up to where the hardware is heading. Conferences and associated events are of course something of a bubble, though, and as soon as my bags were packed and I was headed back to the United States with seemingly endless pages of notes from high-level sessions and interviews, my bubble popped a bit as I left that cocoon of industry expertise.

In the boarding queue for my flight home, the US-based doctor in line behind me struck up a conversation. Following some interesting interviews with physicians at MWS, I was pleased to speak to another medical professional regarding some advances in that field. As he had been in Belgium for talks regarding a new medication, I asked about the FDA approval process at hand for that, and 3D printed medication came up as a matter of course. He was unfamiliar with the first FDA-approved 3D printed pill on the market, and skeptical about the merits of patient-specific formulations and the merits of newer, decentralized manufacturing methods. In talking about some of that process, I mentioned that additive manufacturing could lead to — he cut me off there, asking me to slow down, because he could throw out medical jargon I didn’t understand if I was just going to toss out my industry’s specific jargon.

This isn’t how everyone spends a Friday afternoon?

During the first meal service on the flight, my row mate turned out to be a Hungarian software developer on the way to an electronics conference, so small talk again turned tech. He had heard of 3D printing, and knew that it was supposed to be “everywhere” now, but asked for more details because he was unfamiliar. I pulled a few 3D printed plastic parts from my bag, as these tend to accumulate over the course of a few shows, and he was delighted by a simple PLA part with a company logo on it. We chatted a bit about the kinds of software applications used to create something like that part, as well as the more complex applications. Like the physician a few hours before, he was also taken aback to learn that the engines on the plane we were currently on board had been helped along by additive manufacturing, as through the ever-popular GE fuel nozzle and other parts coming into common use for Airbus planes.

Both the physician and the software engineer are highly skilled, highly educated professionals in fields where additive manufacturing is being put to use with increasing frequency — but they were both effectively unfamiliar with the technology and its potential applications in their fields. The doctor’s comment in particular has stuck with me over the last two days since my return home. Is “additive manufacturing” still jargon?

How insulated is the industry? While adoption rates are indeed rising rapidly across the board from medical to aerospace, additive manufacturing isn’t everywhere. The hype curve is still in play, as another physician I spoke with last week — this one a conference attendee, a physician from Australia running his hospital’s new 3D printing lab, and new himself to the technology and its more technical aspects — was quick to point out. His great hope was that the hype curve was indeed evening out into the realm of the more realistic, and the usable.

Gartner’s illustration of the hype curve for 2016

With the growing amount of applications and the increase in industry participants, we seem to be leaving behind the hype crash and moving towards a realizable future of valid, and expanding, adoption. While much of the hype has been geared toward consumer 3D printing, an area many now agree is not the best exemplar for the potential inherent in additive manufacturing, some of the backlash expanded in ripples out from there. The crash of expectations around that may have done some mainstream damage to the reputation of 3D printing itself, as many outside the insulated bubble of AM adoption remained unaware of ongoing development in industrial-level applications, and felt they had no need to look further into it once popular media overhyped and subsequently mourned consumer-level 3D printing.

A surprising majority of attendees at a panel of 3D printing experts voted that yes, they are in fact ready for an additive future.

However, the industry may be picking that steam back up again with more big ticket announcements coming along all the time. With major names familiar across the world stepping up and being very vocal about their participation in the additive manufacturing industry, we can look toward global giants like GE, HP, Siemens, and more to help us move outside the bubble. Perhaps, as we thought before, 2017 will be the breakout year for 3D printing technologies, as these and many other big players adopt additive technologies.

As many in the industry have been calling for for some time now, education is the real key to expanding participation and investment in, and adoption of, 3D printing. From Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister to those working every day with 3D printing technology, we are seeing a rise in the call for STEAM/STEM-focused education both in schools and in the professional world. Minister Alexander De Croo called this need “continuous education,” pointing out that:

Minister Alexander De Croo

“Every revolution has brought technology into the classroom. The third pushed everyone into higher education, as we needed more brain power. For this fourth industrial revolution, I think the educational component to that will be continuous education. This means everyone always in an environment where we can continue learning. You may say continuous education is not so new, and that is true, but look around you and for how many people is continuous education true? How do you make sure it is for everyone and not just for a small part of the population?”

That main question underlies much of what will drive ongoing development in both the additive manufacturing industry and industry 4.0 itself. Education at all levels, and in all possible areas of the globe, is requisite for any truly sustainable growth to take place as we continue to see the development of the latest technology.

Until we see more initiatives educating students and professionals of the potential for these developments, it is possible that AM will remain somewhat of a niche still struggling to break through into the world at large. We are beginning to see much of the technology’s potential be realized in real-world conditions. With more gatherings of experts and more education across the board, growth can continue at a progressive pace — and interest and participation can rise. Will this be the year that “additive manufacturing” ceases to be jargon? We’ll have to wait and see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if on a flight in the near future I wasn’t the only passenger thinking about 3D printed engine components on board.

What do you think? Is additive manufacturing going mainstream, or will it continue to be niche technology? Discuss in the Additive Manufacturing forum at 3DPB.com.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]

 

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