A series of speakers took the stage at CES to give their views on 3D printing. Like Virginia Slims, 3D printing has come a long way since the hobbyist discovered MakerBot. The impact of 3D printing is spreading and changing the manufacturing environment.

Paul Brody from IBM loosened up the audience by poking fun at himself and his employer?s well known foibles, such as the IBM PC Jr ? an example of how expectation falls short in the long run. Avoiding similar discussion, he emphasized the supply chain aspect of IBM rather than their product line.

He said ?It has been common for an object to be designed in California and made in China ? in three colors, black, gold, and bling.? He continued by saying the question now is who, where, and how will things be made. Henry Ford?s assembly line changed manufacturing forever. Today, Google and Apple are pushing the envelope in manufacturing technology. Three new technologies are coming together: 3D printing, intelligent robotics, and open source.

Robots have been helping assemble cars for years. Robots are moving into manufacturing as well. The cost of a robotic station has dropped dramatically and subsequently will lower the cost of manufacturing. In seven years the cost of a station has gone down 90 percent, reducing assembly costs. Comparing robotic use in Europe to labor use in China, the costs are the same.

Open source hardware designs available on Thingiverse have grown from less than 7,500 in 2010 to nearly 30,000 at the end of 2012. Location is becoming more flexible. Labor costs in cheap labor countries are rising. The robotic element must be added into the equation. With 3D and robotics, it is becoming possible for manufacturing facilities to be closer to distribution points rather than far off in a foreign country, reducing delivery costs.

3D printing has many benefits. Companies can save money by producing a 3D model before they get involved in expensive tooling costs. Material waste can be reduced by optimizing the design before ordering up large quantities. Less expensive small production runs are feasible. Faster turnaround of completed parts is possible.

Of course, there are disadvantages as well. 3D printing materials are limited, development is slow, and materials can be expensive. Product finishing choices are also limited. Additionally, although faster in some respects, it can take hours for the layer-upon-layer printing to take place to achieve a completed object. Then there?s the question of ?green?. Unfortunately 3D printing is not green ? yet. It is energy intensive and material preparation is not green. Hopefully innovation will help in this area.


Brody compared the risks involved in creating parts, objects, things. 3D printing provides low risk and low cost. It?s not going away.

Dr. Conor MacCormack, co-founder and CEO from MCOR Technologies, surprised many of us by stating that the first 3D printed part was made in 1984. Regarding the hype today surrounding 3D printing, he spoke of the cycle 3D printing and all innovations follows. First there is an innovation trigger, followed by a period of inflated expectations, dropping to a trough of disillusionment when over exuberant expectations are not met. It gradually lifts again on a slope of enlightenment when expectations are adjusted to match reality and eventually they cycle settles into a plateau of productivity. Time frames of ideas moving through this cycle differ from innovation to innovation.

3D scanners, the Internet of Things and Big Data are on the upswing. Consumer 3D printing and wearable user interfaces are hitting their peak. Augmented reality and even mobile health monitoring are nearing the trough of disillusionment. The graph shows biometric authentication methods, location intelligence, and speech recognition leveling out on the plateau of productivity. Enterprise 3D printing, as opposed to consumer involvement, is riding low on the plateau of productivity. So the future holds exciting possibilities.

MCOR is the only manufacturer of desktop paper 3D printers in the world and we first saw them at Siggraph in 2013. They use plain reams of paper as their build material and can print simultaneously in more than one million colors. The company goal is to make 3D printing accessible to everyone. To that end they partnered with Staples and Office Depot to do 3D printing for the general public.

MacCormack says there is a time barrier, the build time and print time need to be reduced to about three minutes. Ease of use and affordability is crucial to consumer acceptance. For printing in the home, safety is a requirement; it must also be eco-friendly. As an example, he said: ?You can?t build a carburetor in your kitchen. The magnesium alloy has a melting point of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.? Shape is not enough; thermal, mechanical and electrical properties must be considered or the product can become brittle and fail under fatigue.

When looking at personal 3D printing, one must include the entire ecosystem. It is not just the hardware. Having a word processor does not make you a Shakespeare, MacCormack said. The consumer is not creating what an industrial plant would. They are making personalized objects, things unique to them, customizing items, perhaps making a photo into an object, or putting their kid?s face on toys.

Another approach was taken by Clement Moreau, CEO of Sculpteo, a company we first saw at CES 2012. He was fast to emphasize during this year?s presentation: ?We don?t sell 3D printers.? They sell a service, making objects from 3D images sent to them by their customers. He pointed out that users don?t do mass production at home where one-off is the norm. His company is a printing factory that turns out hundreds, thousands of an object. The completed product is not rough plastic. It has been polished, finished, and baked in a way that cannot be done on a kitchen table.

He says now designers are making their own products. For example, a 74 year old artist is now taking a sketch to plastic to bronze via 3D printing. Old traditions and new are melding. A Parisian jewelry designer was casting a print in wax to make a plaster mold. Ceramic artists are printing clay objects.

Moreau indicated that personalization is part of the revolution. Nike ID lets users create their own shoe by changing parameters on the Internet. iPhone cases can similarly be made; ceramics are customizable in a 3D shop.

You upload your file, Sculpteo prints it in 3D, and ships it to you

Sculpteo does 3D mass production in a batch. They?ve done hundreds of thousands, with billions to come. The biggest batch they?ve done was 21,000 units. Moreau says their process is cheaper and more convenient. He agrees, the hype cycle of explode, descent is active. Eventually, he says, it won?t just be hype any longer, people won?t be talking about 3D printing, they?ll be doing it.

Lynne Wilson, 3DVIA CEO said: "Previously used for rapid prototyping, 3D printing is now considered as a manufacturing solution and is available to all thanks to Sculpteo.? Wilson?s statement indicates where one aspect of the 3D phenomena is heading ? towards a manufacturing solution as many of the presenters also indicated. Still, individuals have been given a gift of creativity unknown before 3D printing became so accessible to them. Thus, on a large enterprise scale or for the professional hobbyist, 3D printing is gradually moving beyond the hype.