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.
NTB: Industry has seen the introduction of 3D printers that use a variety of materials – or multiple materials in one machine. How do manufacturers decide, in many cases, between function and aesthetics when selecting the right machine and material?
Moe: Manufacturers should not be forced to choose a machine because it comes with a certain proprietary printing material, or is designed to only use one type of printing material. Material developers around the world are consistently innovating and we enjoy bringing their new products to our community. When experimental materials face constraints, developers will introduce new tools and accessories to overcome them.
MacCormack: Users will dictate applications, and applications will dictate material requirements. For example, we selected ordinary paper as the primary build medium for our 3D printers because people couldn’t get access to the technology. They demanded much lower cost and ubiquitous consumables,. However, if you want to make an injector nozzle for an engine, the real-world loading will dictate the material and hence the technology.
Mark: We focused on customer feedback — people looking to print parts with the strength of metal, at their desk. That will enable thousands of engineers to fabricate parts when they need them, without waiting in a long queue for machine time.
Pettis: We focus on desktop 3D printing and because of that, we also focus on safe and easy-to-use material that can be used in the office, home, or classroom. We empower individuals to be creative right at their desk.
Cobb: Manufacturers are looking to solve a specific problem. Frequently, 3D printing is seen as a potential solution. 3D printing is similar to many manufacturing processes that are employed today, and these processes can and often rely on secondary processes. The part material takes precedent.
NTB: While stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) seem to be the most popular 3D printing methods, are there technologies on the near horizon that could become the prominent ones in the future?
Moe: Today, these technologies appear well positioned for the foreseeable feature. As a flurry of 3D printing-related companies grow out of open-source hardware projects like RepRap, we are seeing comparable growth in related materials, technologies, software, and services. Then again, we never know when the market will surprise us because something new could always be near the horizon.
Mark: Everything has a niche. SLA is really great for jewelry and dental applications. FDM is unbeatable for tooling and structural parts. Objet is great for simulating plastic with overmolding. And carbon filament fabrication (CFF) is great for printing parts with the strength of metal, and the low-friction surface of Nylon. It’s also useful to tailor the composite to the application. For example, fiberglass can be used if you want the part to be transparent to RF. Carbon fiber can be used if you want to attenuate RF and provide heat syncing.
MacCormack: I think people believe that all the methods for making 3D objects have already been invented. On the contrary, we’re working on new ways to print 3D objects in our R&D labs that, if successful, will really cause a revolution, not just an evolution.
Pettis: MakerBot is currently committed to FDM 3D printing. Our focus is about making 3D printing affordable and accessible on your desktop, and FDM is the safest, most versatile form of 3D printing.
Cobb: I believe all other companies are working to deliver more materials that are well defined in their strength, flexibility, and other properties. I think PolyJet technology gives us good insight into the future where 3D printers can print multiple materials with colors, clear or opaque, and smooth or textured surfaces. In short, it’s manufacturing in a box.
NTB: We’re seeing the evolution of the technology in 3D printing machines. What about the evolution on the software side? Are CAD vendors keeping pace with the necessary software to work with these printers? Is the software keeping up with the hardware?
Mark: The CAD vendors are doing a great job.
Cobb: Software to drive 3D printing is proliferating. Software that is easy to use is becoming available to a wide segment of the population. I believe manufacturers will need to work on developing software that will bridge the design-to-manufacturing process, making it seamless.
MacCormack: Just as the iPod relies on a vast content store from which to buy your music, the 3D printer of the future will be part of a lush ecosystem of content and capabilities. And this ecosystem needs to develop at the same rate as the machines. Elements of the necessary ecosystem include computer-aided design software, which used to be too complex for anyone but designers and engineers. Now a kid can create 3D shapes with a finger on a tablet. We need to refine these capabilities.
Pettis: This past year has been especially exciting with all of the software releases that have come out to support 3D printing. We’ve worked hard to create a 3D ecosystem that makes 3D printing easy and accessible for everyone, and that includes our own software that drives the 3D printing process.
Moe: We are seeing rapid development on the software and hardware sides of the 3D printing market. The most exciting developments have been in the Free Software community, where programs like Blender, Slic3r, and FreeCAD, are competing head-to-head with costly closed-source, proprietary alternatives.
NTB: It has been estimated that the market for 3D printing equipment will grow from about $1.5 billion this year to $4 billion in 2025. What does it look like for new entrants to the 3D printing market in the next 5 to 10 years? Are the larger printer companies more likely to continue acquiring the smaller players, or is there room in the market for more diversity?
Mark: I would suspect larger companies will continue to acquire the smaller ones. And smaller companies should be accepting of this reality.
Cobb: I believe there will continue to be consolidation in the market as larger companies look to smaller organizations to complete or expand their current product lines — not too much different than what is happening in social media today. This does not preclude companies being started that will serve very distinct market.
MacCormack: I believe there is definitely room for more diversity in the industry, and users will continue to demand it in order to achieve greater innovation. The true essence of “democratization of innovation” means that everyone can now participate more than at any time in the past with the help of 3D printers, and this will enable innovation to grow in an exponential way.
Moe: There will always be room for more diversity in the 3D printing market, not only manufacturing printers themselves, but also in printing materials, parts, and accessories; training and education; writing software; designing and modeling; and much more. The future of 3D printing is bright, and we are eager to do our part to innovate and share our knowledge with the community.
Pettis: 3D printing has been around for 25 years and has had only a handful of major players in the industrial sector. Today, there are more companies entering the market. This just helps further the appeal of 3D printing, and helps communicate its power to change work, play, and lives.
A Revolution That’s Made in Space
The 3-D Printing In Zero-G experiment is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in August, and will be the first demonstration of 3D printing in space. The printer, designed and built by Made in Space (Moffett Field, CA), will be able to print parts from files sent to the crew on the ISS. We recently spoke with Michael Snyder, Director of R&D for Made in Space, and Niki Werkheiser, 3D Printing in Zero-G Project Manager in the Technology Development and Transfer Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (Alabama).
NASA Tech Briefs: How does the printer differ from a commercial 3D printer?
Michael Snyder: We started off doing simulated flights in the zero-g parabolic aircraft with the ambition to modify commercial printers to work in microgravity. Through a couple days of testing, we realized that the things we’d end up modifying to make the systems work were pretty substantial. It ended up being a lot better for us to build it from the ground up because of the differences from microgravity to Earth gravity. The process itself is basically the same. There was no “eureka” moment in terms of the process being totally different. The mechanics are slightly different, and those slight differences cause substantial defects in the prints.
We’ll be able to email parts to space as soon as the printer is installed in the glovebox. We’ll be in our offices in Silicon Valley, be able to hit “send,” and the part file will be on the printer in a matter of seconds.
NTB: How are NASA and Made in Space working together on this project?
Niki Werkheiser: Made in Space, although they are making the first 3D printer in space, is interested in the longer term and creating an industry. Enabling space exploration is the ultimate goal. To enable exploration, the key first step would be to manufacture and have independence from Earth-based launches – to manufacture the part you need on demand. All of the flight certification and mission testing for the printer is occurring at NASA, and we’re packing it so it’s safe for launch.
The goal is to take a plastic part made out of the feedstock materials and recycle it back into filament. That will be a very exciting day in space when you can do that, because then you’re actually showing the first concept of true independent sustainability. Imagine a day when we can take old food packaging and recycle it back into feedstock material. It’s not that far off.
NTB: Are there other applications for this printer?
Snyder: We see this technology being very useful for a wide variety of applications – not just based on space. We’re in conversations with a lot of people in pretty much every industry and government arm you can think of. It’s really exciting and this is relatively brand new — thinking of this technology as more than just a toy. We can really revolutionize how things are made and how quickly they can be made. Imagine in war, your Humvee breaks down but you have a printer. You can fix your Humvee and be back on the road in a matter of hours instead of waiting for people to come help you.
Werkheiser: The Navy is very interested in its use in submarines. Obviously, it’s very remote, like the space station, and we’ve been working together with Made in Space with these entities. Ultimately, to develop the technology, our endpoint applications may be different, but there is overlap in the core set of capabilities we both need to see developed.
NTB: This project will reduce the distance goods will need to go, and reduce launch costs?
Snyder: Absolutely. That’s what we set out to do is disrupt the supply chain and make it more convenient, eventually eliminating the need for launch vehicles. When you’re out exploring places like Mars, you won’t have the capability you have on the station. Imagine going to Mars and having feedstock that you can transform into backup environmental control systems or refrigerators. You can do that with the same material and not have to store spares, which reduces mass.
Right now, this technology is capable of doing great things, and it needs to be viewed the same way we view a drill press or a CNC machine. It’s actually better because of the extended capability it gives you. It will be a matter of time before people finally open their eyes fully and realize how much this changes everything.