3D printing has gone far beyond what started as a hobby for many people. Now, there are a range of viable industrial applications for the technology.
Few technologies carry on the spirit of the original IT entrepreneurs like 3D printers, with the devices enabling both hobbyists and professionals alike to dip their toes in the manufacturing industry from almost anywhere.
People have always been able to design whatever they want their IT startup to focus on, however, it’s often the prototyping or production stages that offer the biggest challenges to these fledgling companies – until now.
Traditional manufacturing is expensive for small businesses. Along with a near endless amount of equipment that needs to be setup, stored and calibrated for each product or industry, the process is really only profitable in high-volume production. For fresh-faced startup founders, it’s a daunting, and frequently uneconomical proposition.
With 3D printing, these requirements are reversed, giving startups a cheap and convenient method of prototyping future products or creating goods for sale.
Will 2016 be the year 3D printers go mainstream?
While companies across a range of diverse industries are all investigating the value of 3D printers in their day-to-day operations and people across the world are experimenting with the technology in their own time, the rate of adoption is still growing.
According to IDC, 2016 will mark a notable increase in global spending on technology, suggesting it’s the perfect time for startups to begin investigating how they can be part of its evolution. Although consumer models may be associated with plastic filament that has limited industrial applications, the technology is evolving to include a much wider variety of materials.
The organisation believes this growth will fragment the overall 3D printing industry, as specific machines and materials will only be useful to certain industries. Businesses that are able to capitalise on these trends and react to the specific demands of each market sector stand a better chance of success than those which persist with more general services.
Research Director for Hardcopy Solutions Tim Greene noted that the market for 3D printing adoption is still open, meaning there are few limits on which industries it will begin to affect next.
“The technologies that enable 3D printing continue to develop and expand in nearly every direction,” he said. “These technologies can help deliver larger, more accurate, and more solidly built models in a fraction of the time.”
IDC stated that this increased enthusiasm will be reflected in the amount companies will spend on the technology in the coming years. The organisations predicts that the 2015 global figure of almost US$11 billion will rise to $27 billion by the end of 2019.
3D printers promote automotive disruption
One of the world’s most established industries is currently undergoing a series of major paradigm shifts. While the petrol-powered internal combustion engine has been the key to the automotive industry for around a century, electric car, hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles are taking over.
These trends are further proof that no industry is immune from technology’s influence, and even they way vehicles are manufactured is set to evolve in the coming years.
Frost & Sullivan investigated the effect 3D printing is having on the automotive industry, finding that it’s becoming an integral part of the research and development process. However, will many manufacturers are making the most of these devices in this way, the organisation noted there is room for them to expand these uses.
The organisation found that in 2015, 90 per cent of all 3D printing use in the automotive industry was for prototyping purposes, leaving just 10 per cent for production initiatives. At this stage, this is likely due to the fact that 3D printers can’t match the pace of existing production techniques in the industry.
According to Frost & Sullivan’s Mobility Research Analyst Viroop Narla, 3D printers are likely to become much more useful as the range of materials they support grows.
“Innovative materials such as carbon fibre, metal powders and titanium are expected to radically improve the mechanical, chemical and thermal characteristics of printed products,” he explained.
“Additionally, machines with a focus on quality and better manufacturing processes will lower post-processing requirements by generating products with superior tolerances and surface finish details.”
3D printing startups can lend expertise to existing companies
Some established organisations shy away from taking major risks, especially when it comes to disruptive technology trends. Startups, on the other hand, operate on the complete opposite philosophy, often priding themselves on their ability to engage with devices such as 3D printers before they gain mainstream acceptance.
Ford’s partnership with Carbon3D is a prime example of this. While Ford’s 3D printing endeavours date back to the 1980s and the infancy of the technology, it still found value in the services of a smaller company that had found innovative new ways to make the most of 3D printing.
The rise of 3D printing is an important example for other startups or entrepreneurs to follow, and reveals how these fresh companies have an advantage when it comes to reacting to new technology.