While the race to build the world's first 3D printed house seems to be developing in the European Union, the real estate market in the United States has been taking a sideways look at the practical aspects of additive manufacturing.
According to GigaOm, architects looking at the technology as a means to create buildings in a short period of time may have to wait for 3D printers themselves to catch up with the advances being made in some areas of the industry. One real estate blogger even calculated that a single desktop 3d printer would take over 200 years to build a standard dwelling.
Randy Nelson, a blogger writing on the Movoto website, devised an equation for printing plastic bricks that could be applied to the potential construction of a two-story, 2,500-square feet house. Admitting that it was an unrealistic project, Nelson concluding that a single printer working at full capacity would take 220 years, 4 months and 11 days to provide enough materials to complete the house at a cost of $332,820, a rough guideline that may not be the news that a prospective house builder wants to hear.
Naturally, the blogger was taking a light-hearted view of the potential for 3D printed bricks in the future, but the news source also applied the same equation to a number of iconic U.S. structures, while noting that building a house one brick at a time may not always be the most feasible option.
According to its calculations - deeming the price of each brick to be $48, taking 2.9 days to produce - a 3D printed version of the White House would cost $5,070,696 to build and be ready for occupancy in 3,357 years, 3 months and 23 days while the Empire State Building would run to $222,336,480 and take 147,209 years, 1 month and 1 day.
"No matter how large or small your house, this process is, of course, ridiculous," said Nelson. "Then again, so is building a house using plastic bricks spit out one at a time."
The organizers of a recent 3D printing and rapid prototyping conference held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have confirmed that attendance was double the level of the previous year - another sign that the additive manufacturing sector is attracting significant public interest.
According to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, over 2,500 attendees were present at the three day RAPID Conference and Exposition with sources at the organization revealing that a technical session on the technology led by Brett Lambert - deputy assistant secretary of defense for Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy attracted over 900 people. The SME also noted that this year's event had more than 100 exhibitors, with a number of keynote speeches by industry thought leaders and analysts receiving widespread media attention from a variety of non-industry news sources.
The conference, which has been running for over 20 years, is seen as one of the leading avenues for innovation within the rapid prototyping industry, with attendees treated to a wide range of opinions and guest speakers. While there has been a notable interest in the benefits and uses of 3D printing in recent months, this was a chance for early adopters to demonstrate just how far the technology has come, with presentations by federal agencies and global brands such as Disney adding to a general consensus that this is a technology that will be making more headlines in the future.
Organizers are already planning for next year's conference which will be held at the Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan, with sources at the SME confident that attendance will potentially exceed that of the 2013 event.
"Exhibitors said this was the best event they've ever attended, expressing an incredible level of enthusiasm about new and existing applications for 3D printing and additive manufacturing," said Gary Mikola, SME Business Development Manager, in a press release. "It generated significant media coverage and included attendees from nearly 30 countries and the U.S."
Attendees at the recent RAPID 2013 3D printing and rapid prototyping conference in Pittsburgh have become so used to seeing additive manufacturing constantly touted as the next big thing that for many of them the predicted next industrial revolution is well under way.
According to the Huffington Post, 3D printing is now mentioned on National Public Radio at least three times every day, with early adopters of the technology joking that it is no longer one of the best kept secrets in the manufacturing world. Every day seems to bring yet another innovative use of the technology, with companies no longer using it to just build one-off customized products or prototypes of objects that will never enter the consumer space.
While there have been a number of concerns raised over the potential uses of 3D printed objects and their associated CAD files, the positive aspects of the technology have significantly outweighed any negative uses. To quote a famous line from a superhero franchise, with great power comes great responsibility and for the 2,500 men, women and children that attended the annual rapid prototyping exposition, there was a general consensus that additive manufacturing is well on course to fulfill its undoubted potential.
Sarah Webster, writing in the HP, noted that "additive manufacturing is a nexus point where art, design, computing, craftsmanship and manufacturing collide in a beautiful, intellectually satisfying and appealing way," a scenario that she backed up by revealing that the majority of attendees were no longer "men with grey hair in suits," replaced instead by 20- and 30-something men and women with "ideas, an artistic edge and fire in their bellies."
Webster's conference notes fitted in perfectly with the current media perception of 3D printing. One of the advantages of the technology is that it allows designers and engineers complete freedom to bring their visions to life, with the costs of developing objects and products greatly reduced. Items that needed to go through various stages of research and development can now be created virtually, with simulation software and design validation - an essential part of the manufacturing process.
Industry analysts have already touted the process as one that could re-ignite the manufacturing industry in the United States, especially in terms of recruiting skilled workers or recent graduates with STEM education qualifications. Over the last few years, traditional manufacturing companies have struggled in many ways to fill the apparent talent gap being created by the retirement of an aging workforce and increased automation on the assembly line, and, according to the news source, 3D printing could reverse that trend.
Early adopters and advocates of 3D printing and rapid prototyping have watched as the list of objects that can be produced continues to expand, but in terms of sustainable materials, the choice has been severely limited.
The majority of industrial grade machines and desktop 3d printers use either plastic, steel or ceramic to manufacture a variety of objects, although there is a considerable amount of research going into the use of bioprinters in the medical and food service sectors. However, with the benefits of the technology seemingly going hand-in-hand with its ability to reduce a global footprint and eliminate unnecessary waste, it seems logical to assume that an environmentally-friendly material could be used in the future.
Sustainable 3D printing
According to Gizmodo, two architects living in Oakland, California, have begun experimenting with the concept of 3D printing materials that are sourced from either renewable or organic matter. Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello - both of whom teach a 3D printing class at Berkeley University - are using wood, pulp, clay and salt harvested from San Francisco Bay to print bricks and other building components as part of an innovative architectural project known as Emerging Objects.
"Many people are focused on machines that print plastic," said Rael, according to the news source. "We're looking at it from the other direction, at the materials themselves. We're using waste products from the lumber industry and salt, a renewable and inexpensive resource. It's certainly an ecological way to think about 3D printing."
So far the project has yielded a number of interesting results, with the initial tests producing furniture and materials that, according to Gizmodo, look "weirdly realistic." 3D printed wood, for example, has a faux grain as a result of the layering process involved in additive manufacturing. Rael also believes that their sustainable cement is actually stronger than that produced through traditional methods, thanks to fiber reinforcing techniques developed by students at Berkeley, which the architect refers to as a "secret formula."
"Because the inherent nature of 3D printing opens new possibilities for shaping materials, this process will reshape the way we as a society think about manufacturing and construction," he noted on the Emerging Objects website. "Because additive manufacturing requires no dies or molds, products can be mass-customized, employing the flexibility of computer-aided manufacturing systems, rather than mass- produced, allowing design parameters to be quick. 3D printing is also a fabrication method that minimizes waste which makes it an environmentally conscious method of manufacturing."
3D printing and rapid prototyping is allowing global sportswear manufacturers to bring their visions to the market at breakneck speed, according to a recently published article in the Financial Times.
Both Nike and Adidas have been using additive manufacturing as the means to produce the latest generation of running and football shoes, with the firms publicly stating that 3D printing has dramatically reduced not only the prototyping process but also the amount of man hours it takes to create a innovative piece of sports footwear. However, according to the news source, the prospects of these being made available to the general public are still limited by the technology's relationship to mass production.
"Within six months we were able to go through 12 rounds of prototype iterations that we fully tested, and ultimately we were able to make super dramatic improvements to our products," said Shane Kohatsu, Innovation Director at Nike. "With traditional injection molding techniques, Nike would typically update complex product parts such as studs every couple of years. What's really intriguing for us is not the volumes that you can make. It's really more how rapidly you can make changes."
For Adidas, the challenge has been to integrate rapid prototyping into into its design process, with sources at the firm saying that 3D printing has reduced the length of time it takes to build and evaluate a potential product from four to six weeks to as little as one or two days. Much like its American counterpart, the Bavarian sportswear giant has been able to introduce lean enterprise into its shoe design divisions, with prototyping now carried out by two dedicated footwear technicians as opposed to the 12 members of staff that used to make the products by hand.
The success of such global brands in bringing their designs to their existing client base in a reduced space of time fits in with how industry analysts believe the 3D printing market will mushroom in the next few years. A recently released report by SmarTech Markets Publishing has predicted that the marketplace for hardware, simulation software and associated services will be worth $1.8 billion by the end of 2013, rising to approximately $5.1 billion by 2018.
"However, despite the hype about 3D printing leading to the reindustrialization of developed countries, or the arrival of a "Maker" revolution that will impact the world in the way that the PC revolution did, SmarTech believes that much of the growth in the next few years will be driven by reduced material wastage, lowered shipping and labor costs and a reduction in capital expenditures," wrote the authors of the report, according to a media release.
The opening of a dedicated additive manufacturing facility in Brooklyn, New York City, could be the launch-pad for the next industrial revolution, according to the CEO of MakerBot.
Bre Pretis sees his company's new 3D printer factory as one of the reasons why the process will continue to gain wider acceptance among the consumer marketplace, many of whom are already using the firm as a conduit for reproducing objects offered on its open-source website. In an interview with The Guardian, Pretis stated that he sees the future of the industry as extending far beyond the maker movement, although he was keen to stress that these early adopters had been an essential part of why 3D printing and rapid prototyping was so firmly in the media spotlight.
"The first industrial revolution was all about creating machines and factories where people could go - kind of like here, actually - and work," he told the news source."Now what's interesting is that we've created something that's a factory on your desktop. We make MakerBots with the intention that they'll be used for creative and positive uses. We are doing our part to make the world we want to live in."
The decision to build the additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping facility in New York was taken after city officials expressed an interest in having MakerBot extend its influence within the community. The company had already opened a 3D printing shop in SoHo and while the majority of its customers access its designs and products through the internet, having a large-scale production center was seen as the next step in meeting consumer demand for the printers themselves.
"MakerBot is the future of manufacturing, the future of New York," said Sterne Hoat, chief digital officer for New York City, according to the news source. "Nearly 1,000 tech companies manufacture their products in New York. (We want) to make the city the global capital for 3D printing."
The United States may be the global leader in rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing, but a recent study has indicated that other countries may soon be providing a serious challenge to its position at the top of the tree.
An annual report released by Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting and data analysis firm based in Fort Collins, Colorado, has concluded that while the U.S. is still the dominant force in the market place, significant government investment in other nations is having a requisite effect on the 3D printing landscape.
Shift in location
According to ControlDesign.com, there are now 16 manufacturers of professional or industrial grade 3D printers in Europe, 7 in China and 2 in Japan, with 5 companies headquartered in the United States. This shows a marked change from 10 years ago, when the U.S. could boast 10 companies compared to 7 in Europe and 3 in China.
The report also showed that 38 percent of all industrial AM installations are in the U.S., with Japan claiming 9.7 percent and Germany slightly behind with 9.4 percent. China, which has never been averse to rapid industrialization and adoption of innovative manufacturing techniques, currently has 8.7 percent of global installations although, according to the authors of the report, this is likely to increase following a period of sustained government investment and increasing the pressure on U.S. companies to stay ahead of the pack.
"It will not be easy, given what organizations in China and other regions of the world have planned," commented Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, according to Engineering.com. "What's more, all of the metal powder bed fusion systems are manufactured outside the U.S. Seven manufacturers of these systems are in Europe and two are in China. Together, China, Singapore, many countries in Europe, and even South Africa, have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in AM development and commercialization over the next few years."
Big picture focus
The release of the Wohlers report comes at a time when the Obama Administration has made a firm commitment to the development of the AM industry through the establishment of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, with economic analysts predicting that the sector will continue to grow. According to Wohlers, global revenues for all products and services were around $2.2 billion in 2012, an increase of nearly 29 percent from figures taken a year before, while he recommends that market leaders in the U.S. should focus "on the big picture with big goals."
"Market forces and competitive pressures will take care of the smaller challenges and incremental technology improvements," he said.
If further proof were needed that 3D printing and rapid prototyping is no longer confined to the fringes of the mainstream, then the news that Amazon now has a dedicated category for 3D printers and supplies is one more sign that the industry is growing fast.
According to Engineering.com, the e-commerce giant has added the technology to its "Industrial and Scientific" retail section, with customers able to browse 29 different models of desktop 3D printers at varying price levels. Visitors to the site will also be able to purchase supplies and parts, although it does seem that the choice of printers available is still more geared to the expanding "maker" community, rather than the commercial sector.
The decision by Amazon to add the technology comes after CEO Jeffrey Bezo recently commented that 3D printing was still some way off from changing the manufacturing industry. However, in keeping with the aggressive selling policy of the firm, consumers will be able to choose between new and used models, many of which are under the $2,000 limit that Gartner Research predicted would allow for mass adoption by 2016.
While the appearance of 3D printers on a commercial retail site such as Amazon was to be expected - especially in terms of the publicity and interest generated by the media in the last year or so - there is yet more evidence that the world of additive manufacturing is becoming less niche.
One year ago, a conference dedicated to rapid prototyping and organized by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) attracted over 1,250 attendees to an annual event held in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, this years event - RAPID 2013 - has already seen 2,500 registered attendees, with many more expected to sign up on the door.
Debbie Holton, director of North American events and industry strategy for the SME, told the news source that the conference was showcasing more 3D printing companies then ever before, with the event drawing a diverse range of well-known participants such as Tiffany & Co., General Electric and Boeing.
"Additive manufacturing and 3-D printing is growing at a very fast pace," said Holton. "Increased interest by the mainstream media as well as the increase in government emphasis and funding has led a lot of people and companies to get involved. Additive manufacturing is really on a growth trajectory that is only going to increase as more people become aware of how they can use it to benefit their business."
While the game-changing benefits of 3D printing and rapid prototyping to the manufacturing industry have undergone regular discourse, the increased influence of the technology in the arts and crafts world has seen a return to the low-budget concept of cottage industry.
According to The Associated Press, the drop in price of desktop 3D printers is being hailed by the growing maker movement as one of the reasons why more artists are choosing to showcase their creativity through 3D printing and simulation software. While many of them still don't believe that the desktop of versions can accurately reproduce previously hand-crafted versions of artistic objects - for example, sculpture or one-off pieces of jewelry - there is a increasing use of 3D modeling as part of the design process with software such as SolidWorks an integral part of the process.
"It really takes the lid off of what's possible," said Andrej Suskavcevic, president and CEO of the Craft and Hobby Association in Elmwood Park, N.J., in an interview with the AP. "It seems to me it'll provide a really good bridge between technology and hands-on crafting."
Industry analysts have compared the increasingly mainstream transition by early adopters of 3D printing as similar to that of the Industrial Revolution, a period of history that saw manufacturing practices in Europe become more efficient, with cottage industries suffering as a result of mass production. However, there are those in the maker movement who feel that the technique of additive manufacturing and reproduction through a 3D printer is more closely aligned to the cottage concept of individuality and small-scale retail opportunity, especially in the arts and crafts sector.
Although there are artists who have embraced the practice of rapid prototyping their ideas in the comfort of their own homes, the growth of dedicated 3D printing companies that can use industrial scale machines as opposed to desktop versions is seen as a path that can fuse imagination and consumer availability. The costs of traditional manufacturing can overwhelm an independent artist, most of which can involve long periods of trial and error for intricate or delicate pieces, hence the need to use the commercial 3D printing sector as the means of production.
"It's a low-overhead way to run a business," commented Colleen Jordan, an Atlanta-based jewelry designer. "I spent $25,000 on printing last year. If I were to put that into just making molds, I'd only have 30 products before shipping. Desktop 3D printers are good for messing around with and printing prototypes."
Students at University California, Berkeley, will be able to access the world of 3D printing and rapid prototyping on a 24-hour basis after the campus unveiled a vending machine dedicated to the technology.
According to the International Business Times, students will be able to upload CAD files to the Dreambox - a 3D printing facility that will help to reduce the pressure being put on existing 3D printers at the university by the increased interest in the rapid prototyping technique. At present the few printers that are on-site are restricted to graduate students and researchers, with other campus members having to wait in line for a chance to use them, with sources at the university revealing that this can take up to a month.
Frustrated by the 3D printing limitations being imposed upon the student body, three recent graduates developed the Dreambox with the intention being to not only increase access to the process, but also to democratize the technology so that a wider audience could appreciate its potential. With the benefits and applications of the technique highlighted in the mainstream media on what seems like a daily basis, the inventors of the vending machine believe that it will take 3D printing and rapid prototyping to the next level at UC Berkeley.
"Getting people exposed to 3D printing and what it can do will hopefully encourage people to create their own models and solve their own problems," said David Pastewka, CEO of Dreambox.
The first Dreambox cost under $10,000 to build and was assembled in five weeks, according to the IBT. Users have been able to print small objects less than an hour after uploading the CAD files, although the enthusiasm for the new vending machine has seen some students wait for around 24 hours to pick up their 3D printed objects.