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Industry Roundtable: 3D Printing

It’s being called a revolutionary change in the way we design and make products – a disruptive technology that will have far-reaching effects for both engineers and consumers. It’s 3D printing, and it is shaping the future of manufacturing. NASA Tech Briefs spoke recently with executives at four of the leading 3D printer vendors about what 3D printing is today, what it will be tomorrow, and if it really will change the world.

Our roundtable panel members are Jeff Moe, Founder and CEO of Aleph Objects; Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot; Greg Mark, CEO of MarkForged; Conor MacCormack, Co-founder and CEO of Mcor Technologies; and Jon Cobb, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Stratasys.

NASA Tech Briefs: 3D printing is being referred to as the next industrial revolution. Is it really on a par with where the personal computer was in the 1980s – on the cusp of being a ubiquitous technology that pervades both our work and home lives, or is that democratization of the technology still years away?

Greg Mark: Nobody knows. Technology has a way of sneaking up on you, but it’s impossible to predict exactly when that will occur, or how people will use it.

Bre Pettis: We do see the 3D printing industry paralleling the personal computer industry. Thirty years ago, consumers used to ask the question, “why do I need a computer in my home? I have a calculator.” Today, everyone has a computer more powerful than we ever dreamed of right in his or her pocket – their smartphone. We see 3D printing going in the same direction.

Jeff Moe: 3D printing technology is a few years away from becoming ubiquitous. Today, we do have customers around the world using our machines, but right now, the 3D printing market reminds me of Linux in the 1990s. For us, ease of use cannot and will not come at the expense of making good hardware.

Jon Cobb: 3D printing could be the next industrial revolution because it has a broader impact. Individuals have the capability to design and print personal products. Embracing this innovative technology will fuel not only a change in the design and manufacturing process, but also distribution.

Conor MacCormack: I relish our industry’s challenge of creating a 3D printer for everyone, an ecosystem to support it, and the true democratization of innovation. A new group of users, everyday consumers, are less technically skilled, less driven to master every aspect of 3D printing, but just as interested in the technology’s ability to make things they need.

NTB: There is a new job title in design and manufacturing called “maker.” How does that incorporate what the designer and engineer currently do, and what does the “maker” do that is a separate function?

Cobb: I believe today’s makers are what we called “craftsmen” in the past. Makers look at a problem and design a solution. The 3D printer, along with software that is becoming much easier to use, allows the maker to solve his or her own problem, on their own terms, and within their own time-frame.

Mark: I suspect it means different things to different people. In the consumer space, it may be a synonym for “hobbyist.” In the industrial space, it may be a synonym for fabricator.

MacCormack: Makers are technically savvy early adopters who have gone online, purchased hobbyist 3D printers, and tinkered with the technology. Many makers are designers and engineers, but not all. These are the people who constantly push the envelope of what the technology can do for them both professionally and personally.

Moe: As the maker movement gets more sophisticated, it follows that companies are creating positions for these types of talented individuals with diverse skill sets. Generally, we understand makers to be inquisitive self-starters who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Ultimately, a maker’s job function will depend on what companies need.

Pettis: Today, with the help of 3D printing, creative individuals are now being heralded as the new “makers” of our generation. Their talents and skills to move ideas from concept to reality through the process of making are being celebrated. 3D printing brings innovation and iteration to the forefront.