Frequently used as a design validation and prototyping tool in its early days, the 3D printer now supports a much wider range of applications, from shape-conforming electronics to the creation of printed living tissue. Tech Briefs spoke with industry expert Terry Wohlers about 3D printing's emerging possibilities.

Terry Wohlers
Terry Wohlers

Terry Wohlers, Principal Consultant & President of the independent consulting firm Wohlers Associates, Inc., has studied the 3D printing and additive manufacturing market for 30 years. The company’s 22nd annual edition of the Wohlers Report, published this week, offers insights on the state of the 3D printing industry, current applications, and the technology’s future.

What is an obscure use case for 3D printing that our readers may not know about?

Terry Wohlers: I’ve seen many over the years. One of the most bizarre examples is a woman who passed away, was cremated, and they used her ash as the feedstock for the 3D printer — and they built a toaster!

What does that say about what 3D printers were initially designed for, and how does that compare to today’s uses?

Wohlers: Early on, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, 3D printers were targeted at companies that wanted to build a model or prototype, to get something in their hands so they could review it, set it up to mating parts, and get input from various groups inside and outside the company.

The next frontier, where companies are putting their resources today, is using the technology for actual manufacturing, for production quantities. They’re not ignoring the technology for prototyping applications, but they’re investing great amounts of energy and money into developing these machines and materials for actual production.

How has the 3D printing market changed in the past five years?

Wohlers: If you look back to 2011, there were 31 manufacturers of industrial-grade 3D printers. Fast forward to 2015: There were 62 manufacturers. At the end of last year, we counted 97 companies worldwide producing and selling these high-end machines — many of which produce metal parts.

How has the use of metal in 3D printing changed?

Organovo, based in California, designs and 3D prints liver tissue.

Wohlers: We’re seeing really an astounding number of companies — GE, Airbus, Lima Corporate in Italy, Stryker [based in Bellevue, WA] — producing metal parts that are going into aircraft and into human bodies in the form of orthopedic implants and dental crowns and bridges. We are also seeing a wide range of other products, such as home and office accessories, being manufactured by 3D printing.

What is a “bleeding-edge,” modern application for 3D printing?

Wohlers: Organizations around the world have printed both hard and soft tissue that they’ve implanted into animals and some humans as well, although it’s still in early testing. The idea is that if you lose a finger, for example, or have a damaged liver or heart, living cells are taken from you and used to produce the replacement. I think someday, perhaps in our lifetime, we’ll be able to benefit from a more fully developed version of this technology.

How will 3D printing impact the future of electronics?

Wohlers: A handheld electronics device typically includes one or more printed circuit boards. Imagine if you could 3D print the electronics to conform to the shape of the product, so that you don’t have to design the product around a printed circuit board, but vice versa. You could 3D print the electronics around corners and inside the shape of the product.

Optomec, a company in Albuquerque, NM, has been supplying systems for the 3D printing of antennas within the interior frame of a mobile phone. The antenna material conforms to the shape of the interior of the mobile phone. The benefit: You don’t have to manufacture a separate antenna — rather it’s built right in. We’ll see a lot more of this kind of 3D printing in the future.

What is exciting to you about 3D printing?

Wohlers: With 3D printing, digital inventories are possible, so you can manufacture on demand. Companies are now beginning to explore the idea. What is so exciting is to watch some of the biggest companies and brands in the world begin to embrace it. Some are putting together teams at the executive level to understand how they can adopt the technology and ride this next wave of manufacturing.

Read the Wohlers Report 2017.

Learn how infrared cameras are being used to support advanced 3D printing efforts.

View an on-demand webinar about NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) project.

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