We've been big fans of 3D printing since being introduced to it in the late 1990s. Even back then, it was already an important technology for industrial design and prototyping.
Because of this great potential - think having a Star Trek type replicator in your home - there's a lot of hype around 3d printing.
Knowledge@Wharton's Separating Facts From Fiction About 3D Printing does a great job of explaining where 3D printing is today and the role it will likely play in manufacturing over the next 5-10 years or so. Key quote:
So where does that leave 3-D printing? It is a revolutionary technology best suited for unique products for both consumer and business uses, but the process is not efficient enough for mass production. "The technology will be used in production in cases where demand is sporadic or where true customization is required. Those are not insignificant uses, but I don't see how the technologies will be revolutionary or disruptive in manufacturing," notes Karl Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean of innovation and professor of operations and information management.
We agree, at least for the next decade or so.
But we also agree with the JWT Intelligence article 3D Printers Move Into the Mainstream. Key quote:
Some argue that the technology will revolutionize manufacturing, empowering entrepreneurs in fields from the automotive to medical industries. “Just as desktop publishing transformed how we write, we think desktop manufacturing will transform how we create,” declares a Microsoft blog post.
It's just a question of timing.
Over the next 3-5 years expect 3D printing to continue to expand it's role in the manufacturing of highly customized and limited production run parts and products.
Also expect rapid growth in the use of 3D printers by small manufacturing firms and skilled craftsmen/women. They will use 3D printers to deliver niche and highly customized products. They will also increasingly use 3D printers like large firms do, to improve their industrial design and prototyping processes.
But the reality is 3D printing is still an immature technology. Its use will continue to be constrained by material limitations, the cost of materials, the amount of time required to make a product and imperfections in the printing process.
All of these will be fixed with time, but don't expect to be able to ask your 3D printer for "tea, Earl Grey, hot" for at least another decade or so.
See our Small Manufacturing category for more on 3D printing.