Although not a new industry, 3D printing is still an upcoming industry with many recent improvements in various fields which have made accessibility for hobbyists and businesses much easier. Compared to other technology sectors, it’s still a small industry, but most analysts agree it has great potential. However, where is the potential for freelance designers and software engineers?
Because I formerly covered 3D printing for some publications, a fellow Toptal employee posed this question to me a couple of weeks ago. I had no definite answer. Because of its limited mass marketing appeal and upside, listing various business opportunities was not something I could just do. 3D printing is still a maturing technology, which means there isn’t a whole lot of standardization and online resources for designers and developers willing to enter into the market.
Regardless of all of these things, this does not mean business opportunities do not exist for 3D printing. They’re absolutely out there, limited as they might be. In this post, I will try to explain what makes the 3D printing industry unique and appealing, as well as what freelancers can expect from the field moving forward.
uPrint SE Plus 3D Printer
3D Printing For Hobbyists And Businesses
To begin, the difference between two differing sides of the 3D printing industry needs to be deciphered.
On one side of 3D printing world, there are numerous hardware enthusiasts, software developers and designers working on open-source projects. The RepRap project embraces this slim and open approach better than any similar initiative in the 3D printing industry. RepRap, Replicating Rapid Prototyper, is essentially an initiative started to develop inexpensive printers. The initiative is based on fused filament fabrication (FFF) technology. This FFF technology is almost identical to Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, but because of a commercial patent placed on the name by Stratasys, RepRap was unable to refer to it as such. When the company’s patent on FDM finally did expire, FDM was happily embraced by the open-source community, albeit under a different name.
With the project having just reached a decade in age, RepRap has come a long nicely. The first printers were released only a few years after launch. By 2010, the RepRap project was on its third generation design, and in the forth coming years from then, the RepRap community has seen tremendous growth.
One outstanding feature from RepRap initiative is self-replication. The overall goal of the project is to develop a 3D printer that will eventually replicate itself. Although it has not fully accomplished this feat, some RepRap designs are actually allowing their users to print three quarters of the printer. You still can’t print extruders and electric servos, but it’s definitely a start.
Commercial prosperity was never the goal of the RepRap project, its intentions were to be a tech-first initiative. The reality was that it was never created to be consumer-centric. The project was to serve as a pioneer in developing various technologies and presenting them to the hobbyist market at low cost. Profitability was never a goal in the creation of the RepRap project.
So what about big business? Multiple industry pioneers have already become 3D printing Goliaths. Companies such as Stratasys, 3D Systems, Ultimaker and Printbot. RepRap printers command a big market share, and they’re not being pushed out by proprietary platforms. In order to guarantee full functionality and compatibility, most peddlers in the 3D printing industry have to abide by RepRap standards.
Simply listing these 3D printing companies and their respective market share does not exactly provide the full image, however. For example, FFF technology is the most commonly used and diversified 3D printing technology today. The problem is that FFF printers, which RepRap is limited to, have many restrictions and constraints which ultimately makes them unusable in various industries.
Different Technologies For Different Applications
In order to fully understand what is out there, we need to observe the available technologies in the 3D printing industry. Although it may sound uninteresting to those not into the hardware of these products, it’s vital to understand the difference between the various available 3D printing technologies.
- FFF/FDM usually relies on thermoplastic “filament” heated by the printer extruder before being placed on the print bed. The majority of FFF printers rely on ABS and PLA plastic filament, but the most recent models also use polycarbonate (PC), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) filament. Some substitute metal wire for the typically used plastic, while others use sawdust to develop quasi-wood objects. There are even printers capable of printing food such as chocolate, pasta and.
- Granular printers are completely different machines because their material is not filament, but, rather, powdered metal. These printers are usually based on laser technology, but they’re not very similar to your office laser printer. They use a strong laser to selectively fuse granular materials. There are multple options in doing this: Selective laser sintering (SLS) printers fuse small metal particles by way of “sintering,” whereas selective laser melting (SLM) printers melt the powder. Electron beam melting (EBM) printers hits metal powder with an electron beam in a vacuum environment
- Stereolithography (SLA) printers transform liquid raw material into solids through the use of light. Because SLA prints don’t normally need struts or supports, these printers have various advantages in terms of accuracy, efficiency and the capability to produce complex objects in a single pass. The problem with them is that the choice of materials is very limited. They are ordinarily exotic liquid polymers, and can’t be used to print metal or chocolate.
There are more 3D printing technologies available aside from these, but for time sake, I need not cover them.
You may by asking, why we all don’t have access to these 3D printers in our homes and offices? Why can’t we just print things with a 3D printer just as we do with invoices, sheets and emails? That is because 3D printing is not going mainstream any time soon, due to some challenges and problems that need to be addressed before we see these things happening.
- Prohibitively expensive hardware
- Limited user base (compared to traditional printers)
- Immature technology
- Price/performance, ROI
- Running costs
- Energy efficiency
With each new generation, entry-level 3D printers become a little more cost efficient. However they clearly remain too expensive for the majority of potential users. It’s seemingly not a problem to buy a $200 printer for your home or office, especially since you’ll probably get plenty of use out it. In terms of 3D printers, however, the chances of this having the same truth to it is rare. Compare the amount of people you know who have need to print documents to that of those who need to print 3D objects for prototypes, etc.?
Technology is undoubtedly growing and advancing, but limits remain in existence. 3D printers are still not time efficient, perform only in certain conditions that can be demanding to suit, their “print-beds” are generally tiny (even more so with the lower priced models), the options for materials is small and filament is not exactly cost-efficient.
The main culprit behind why businesses aren’t jumping at the bell to buy 3D printers is pretty easy to determine: Return on Investment. 3D printers remain far off from overcoming traditional manufacturing methods in terms of speed, cost and energy efficiency. This is absolutely not to say the industry isn’t going to eventually turn to 3D printing as there are already some groundbreaking developments. Just don’t expect 3D printers to overtake the traditional manufacturing techniques in the very near future.
However, there have been some very interesting exceptions this conception as of late. A couple of years ago, General Electric broke ground on creating and developing a new fuel injection nozzle for its next generation CFM LEAP turbofan engine, which will undoubtedly be placed in hundreds of airliners. For these nozzles, GE chose to use 3D-printed titanium nozzles. The reasoning behind their decision was due to the fact that the new 3D printed nozzle ended up being 75% the weight of the prior design and was also existed as one, single part compared to the 18-part nozzle of the previous design. On top of that, it is anticipated that the nozzle’s durability will be five times better. These nozzles are intended for use in engines made from 2016 and on. GE is looking to produce over 100,000 3D-printed of these nozzles in the first 10 years.
A team of GE engineers decided to produce a working replica of one of these engines, using a modern granular printing method referred to as “metal laser melting.”
To sum it up, there won’t be any children’s’ toys in Walmart that have been 3D printed, but you will fly on airliners powered by engines, made better and more efficient through 3D printing. There won’t be any 3D-printed chocolate for sale at your local grocery store, for now that is, but you could be chewing your Hershey’s with 3D-printed prosthetic from your family dentist.
There Is Another Way: 3D Printing Fulfilment Services
If you’re in need of prototypes for a great new product you’re developing, there’s a much better, fast, cost-efficient way than buying a your own 3D printers or having your various prototypes made through your parts manufacturer. It’s called a fulfillment service and they can complete your desired models in just a couple of days.
A 3D printing fulfilment service is clearly an obvious choice, and that’s where the 3D printing industry seems to be heading. Most 3D printing companies have launched their own fulfillment services and are working with industry leaders to further advance their capabilites. One example of the industry’s collaborative community is Stratasys Direct Express, who recently teamed up with Adobe and commissioned Photoshop CC integration, offering colour 3D printing for professional designers.
Google and Motorola, rather than having to spend billions making their own 3D printing facilities, outsourced their module manufacturing to 3D Systems in development of their interchangeable smartphone concept ‘Ara’. The concept absolutely shined light on the potential usability of 3D printing technology: Ara is centered around an alloy exoskeleton filled with multiple standardized pieces that could be 3D printed. Since the pieces have to connect to the exoskeleton, 3D Systems created a new method of putting conductive materials inside the 3D printed components, a divergence from typical 3D printer prototyping.
3D fulfilment services usually offer multiple kinds of printing technologies, modern hardware and assistance/help. It’s basically pointless to spend a fortune on a 3D printer for a design rather than use a fulfillment service where you just send your designs to the professionals, utilizing the numerous professional 3D printers which cost a fortune, and getting your prototype back in just a few days. Not to mention the price-efficiency of the printing itself, professional 3D printing services offer have a much better price/performance ratio compared to if you did the printing yourself.
In my opinion, using a 3D printing fulfillment service is undoubtedly the best option. This simple business model has a lot of potential, There isn’t even competition in terms of small businesses or individuals being able to match the efficiency and effectiveness. In terms of price, size and energy consumption, a professional 3D printer has more in common with a printing press than your LaserJet, and how many people need a printing press in their home or office?
3D Printing For Designers And Developers
For the typical visual designer or software engineer, does this mean 3D printing is going to change how business is conducted? Will rapid prototyping become facilitated and the cost of small-scale manufacturing actually become low-priced?
The answer to this is not a short or easy one because because there are multiple angles at which you must view this. Relying heavily on this are what one’s aspirations are and where their partiality lies.
Some of the various reasons designers and developers may indulge in 3D printing are as listed:
- Participation in open-source initiatives (RepRap)
- Use of professional design tools (Adobe CC)
- Integration of printing functionality to applications (Autodesk’s Spark 3D printing platform)
- Use of 3D printing fulfilment services
- Integration of 3D printing fulfilment services
Most open-source initiatives are directed towards personal, hobbyist users. They are very important for education too, and have the potential to inspire a lot of innovation. The disadvantage is the lack of profitability here. It’s mostly a labor of love. On the positive side of things, the standard is absolutely and easily attainable. Beginner printers and materials such as filaments can be found for just a couple hundred dollars. Essentially, you can good an affordable and pretty reliable 3D printer for the cost of a new iPhone, perhaps cheaper than that!
Introduction and incorporation of 3D design and printing abilities may potentially prove more lucrative in the long-term. Because of its accessibility through top software packages in the industry, developers won’t have to go out of their way or utilize resources to can access to 3D printers for the purpose of experimentation and trial. Eventually, a customer will have questions about 3D printed prototypes or small-scale production, so forming some knowledge on this technology and its abilities may yield some benefit in the future.
So that leaves us with the one thing still needed to be fully addressed, that being 3D printing fulfillment services discussed previously.
Outsourcing 3D Printing Via The Cloud
Looking at fulfillment services from the outside, they seem to provide a solution to all our problem. They provide access to professional services for individuals and small businesses who otherwise couldn’t even begin to imagine using technology of this matter in the work due to pricing and availability. They’re basically the only feasible means of incorporating 3D printing into a various services, mainly through cloud-based mobile and web apps.
So what are the disadvantages? There aren’t many.
Industrial sized fulfillment services are a relatively new conception, and because of this, availability still remains limited. For example, if you wanted to have a small amount of titanium prototypes printed in California, it’s no biggie at all, but what if you require the same thing to be done, but you’re in Guam? Cost-efficiency would shrink to a minimum because the manufactured designs will have to be shipped across the world. The cost efficiency of manufacturing the goods on-site would end up being too expensive
That being said, on-site manufacturing remains to have a lot of current benefits and potential in itself; if a business needs to repeat and tinker with some designs quickly, then the speed and accessibility of 3D printer rapid prototyping is basically can’t be replicated printing services. This is a somewhat constricted niche, but it’s by no means minuscule. Design studios, architects, engineers, various maintenance departments, logistics, education; they all need on-site printers. Think about if you required a printed replacement part on the International Space Station, ordering it off Amazon isn’t an option. Adding to that, 3D printing in space would have made the accomplishments of the Apollo 13 crew look less remarkable. That’s probably why NASA is already experimenting with 3D printers in space today.
It’s noteworthy that 3D printers have the capability to multiple replacement parts and passive components. Their abilities can also be utilized in printing actual working electrical pieces, ranging from speakers to printed circuit boards (PCB). PCB prototyping is a nice niche because typical methods are not time-efficient and are very costly. A 3D printer with a spool of conductive filament can usually perform the job on-site, on time, and on budget.
That being said, in terms of mass market applications go, chances are this area will be controlled by industrial power-houses such as Amazon, Stratasys, 3D Systems, and Hewlett-Packard. As the industry continues to develop, worldwide accessibility should in turn not be problematic, costs will decrease and new hardware will provide new opportunities and unmatched quality.
In my opinion, the biggest issue in the current industry is the lack of use-cases. Of course, it sounds convenient, but who is it for? How do we get 3D-printed products into the markets of mainstream consumers?
This question is not as straightforward as it seems because 3D printing has been talked up greatly in recent years. To exemplify and better understand my remarks, just Google ‘3D printing use-cases’. 3D printing seems to be a great solution to all our problems, but in reality most of it still has a while to develop, based on long-term projections.
So, I decided to include research from an unbiased source: UK’s Intellectual Property Office. The paper, titled The Current Status and Impact of 3D Printing Within the Industrial Sector: An Analysis of Six Case Studies is elaborate and detailed. It observes the potential impact of 3D printing in several industries: automotive, domestic appliances, replacement parts, customised goods, reverse engineering, games and computer generated graphics.
Customized goods and CGI-derived designs stand out as the most realistic use cases for freelancers, so let’s take a closer look.
One 3D printing’s greatest advantages over traditional manufacturing practices is the ability to develop one-off designs or small series. How long would it take to make a plastic toy using typical traditional manufacturing? You’d need a vast amount of equipment and materials. With additive manufacture (3D printing), it’s basically a matter of choosing a wire-frame and clicking a mouse. This means it’s possible to create unique designs, suited to meet the needs of multiple customers.
3D printing can allow average consumers to create and customize multiple products before making an actual purchase. This can simply be performed over one of many professional desktop applications, or in more simple means like web and mobile apps. It’s not anticipated of the average consumer is to design an item from the ground zero, but these simplified apps make is easy enough for a child customize a toy using a smartphone
A stage a such would require loads of different colour or decal options, as well as the 3D wire-frames. In addition to this should be the capability to develop modular designs, so if kids are customizing a toy, they could have the option to choose between various different components that would be put together to create the whole product.
Yes, rather than customizing virtual environments in apps and games, the youth of today will actually have the ability to personalize their real toys, or turn their video game characters into action figures. Don’t you wish you were born a couple decades later than you were now?
Listed below are some personalized 3D printing use-cases with mass market appeal:
- Custom jewelry
- DIY and hobbyist products
- Fashion and gadget accessories
- Personalized appliances and household items
However, products don’t have to be personalized to suit you as a consumer; their specifications could be created to replicate your physique, like a tailored suit. Compared to custom designed toys, the appeal may not be as comparative on a mass market scale, but that definitely does dull their excitement. I actually take more interest in these personally than to that of a customized toy car or doll.
Here are just a few examples of this:
- Digital dentistry
- Surgery (mockups for training, 3D-printed replacement joints)
- Advanced prosthetics
- Tailored equipment and apparel for various professions
- Sports equipment and accessories
Although the emotional appeal may not be as high for these things, the usefulness for them far outweighs that. Considering the medical field, for example, these things could become vital in world changing developments.
Today’s youth will someday be able to create their own custom toys through a mobile app.
The Implications And Future Of 3D Printing
So what’s end game here? Will additive manufacturing actually transform industrial landscape as we know it? Could this actually be the second coming of the industrial revolution?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is an upcoming technology with boundless potential. The potential is undoubtedly beyond promising, but we’re still far from harnessing it, though the industry is experiencing rapid growth.
Adding to that point, the market for 3D printing services, hardware, and materials, has steadily risen at an immaculate double-digit rate over the recent years. Analysts anticipate the market to surpass the $10 billion mark before the decade is up, in other words more than double from where it is today. Sure, on paper that’s a pretty large sum of money, but to put it into a more relative perspective, the same analysts expect annual smartphone shipments for 2015 to end up in the 1.3 to 1.4 billion unit range.
Overlooking all of the talk about the industry, the curb appeal of 3D printing technology still has a lot of room to grow, but it’s still in its early stages of development. The future will undoubtedly yield vast growth and advancement in the fields, this is back by various use-cases. 3D printing fulfillment services are, without question, the center-piece of these use cases. This brings great benefits to small businesses and individuals, because they will easily be able to access the technology through third-party infrastructure. It will all be very cost-efficient as well because rather than by the printers and materials, they will simply integrate a few APIs to their platform and that’s it.
In the short term, this is the future of 3D printing, at least from a mass market perspective.