Gartner believes that 3D printing technology will reach mainstream adoption for both businesses and consumers within 10 years. Heretofore mainly used by engineers (Boeing and GE have long used 3D printers to make aircraft parts.), in 2013, the market for 3D printers under $100,000 grew by 49%. It’s expected to grow even faster in 2014.
Today, companies of all sizes are exploring 3D printing technology to prototype projects and make small parts, freeing up engineers and creative designers from some of the limitations of traditional manufacturing technologies.
The medical and dental sectors are rapidly adopting 3D printing, particularly for the processes of creating dental molds and custom dental products.
Obstacles Holding Back Mainstream Adoption
3D printing technology has not matured, despite the many communities springing up around the concept. Moreover, many 3D printing business models will not survive the crowdfunding process, and consumers are wary of buying a product whose manufacturer may not exist in a year’s time. Additionally, the software for 3D printers hasn’t reached maturity, and is not cross-compatible between different printer models. And the machines themselves use a lot of energy and are noisy.
Not all obstacles to 3D printing adoption are technical. In fact, the technology is outpacing development of regulations, and this has many concerned about intellectual property rights in a world where 3D printing is mainstream. Products that people design (or modify) and have printed by companies like Thingiverse exist in a legal gray area currently. Today is still a bit of a “Wild West” legal landscape with regard to designs and downloads. Expect that to change as technology matures and adoption broadens.
Software: The Biggest Obstacle
The biggest current hurdle to widespread adoption of 3D printing is software. 3D printing is not as simple as 2D printing, with convenient drop-down menus, and pressing “Print.” But this is also the biggest opportunity, because those who are able to marry great software to 3D printing technology stand to usher in a new world of innovation.
Unlike Most Consumer Tech, 3D Printing Will Grow in Industry First
3D printing may take over some injection molding processes when the technology matures.
The consumerization of technology brought mobile devices to the business world, but it doesn’t look like that will be the case with 3D printing. It’s much more likely that it will achieve widespread use in industry before entering the consumer market with any significance. While there are already returns on investment for 3D printing, it’s not yet easy for CIOs to make a case for 3D printing in the workplace.
Disruption that would, for example, allow small businesses to manufacture on-demand and circumvent the global supply chain, could take 3D printing from novelty to must-have. But total cost of ownership and return on investment will have to become more obvious for this to happen.
Impact in Industry
3D printing has the potential to lower waste and shrink carbon footprints for manufacturing. When product replacement parts can be 3D printed, the waste of throwing away otherwise-functional products could diminish. Additionally, printing parts on-site means they don’t have to be trucked in from elsewhere. When parts can be made on an as-needed basis, parts for discontinued products won’t have to take up warehouse space, or worse, end up in landfills.
Disadvantages 3D Printing Brings
3D printers of plastic items consume significantly more electricity than injection molding machinery to make an item of the same weight. Possible hazards of emissions (such as microscopic hot plastic particles) from 3D printers have yet to be fully measured as well. And of course, the reliance on plastics is pan issue of concern. Biodegradable plastics are being developed for 3D printing, however, and there are people working on ways to recycle byproducts of 3D printing.
Getting Ahead of 3D Printing Before It Disrupts Your Business
Most businesses are still in the exploration phase with 3D printing. Idea contests and workshops may be smart ways to uncover possible uses for 3D printing so that the business sense of adopting 3D printing technology can be better evaluated. Then when technology matures, organizations will be better poised to make business cases for 3D printer adoption.
Only about 12% of businesses surveyed by Tech Pro Research are currently using 3D printing, but 31% of survey respondents are considering using the technology within the next year. Some companies are already finding ways to reduce labor and production costs with 3D printing, but costs will have to drop more, and software will have to mature for this to become commonplace.
When 3D printing enters the mainstream business world Samanage will be ready with its IT asset management software. Samanage‘s unified IT asset management and IT service desk interface make accounting for and maintaining an organization’s infrastructure seamless and efficient, with all the convenience and cost savings of a true cloud solution.