A Lux Research study we reported on a few months ago regarding the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) suggested that business relationships among the makers of AM machines and their users will need to change. As the larger OEMs bring these technologies inside and want greater control over processes and materials, we speculated that some with specialized requirements might try to acquire 3D printing/AM companies, and invest in them as well.
That hasn't happened yet, although we have seen industry/university R&D partnerships between aircraft-engine-maker Pratt & Whitney and the University of Connecticut to develop processes and materials, and between Optomec and the University of Pittsburgh to train next-generation engineers in AM. I still think major-manufacturer ownership of 3D printing technology or materials is coming eventually.
But some other interesting developments have happened, and more are on the horizon.
In June, Stratasys, the high-end inventor of fused deposition modeling (FDM) techniques bought MakerBot, the low-end maker of desktop machines that use FDM. A few weeks ago, 3D Systems acquired Phenix Systems, makers of equipment for direct laser sintering with metals and ceramics. Both purchases represent two ends of the industry coming together in ways that they haven't before, in terms of materials, users, or applications.
Will further consolidation happen? Probably. 3D Systems is already known for acquiring technology and markets by buying other companies, so this isn't new for the company. Stratasys has also made a few purchases in the last couple of years. Connecting the high-end metals part of the industry with the medium-to-high end of the industry that works only in plastics is a major change, as is merging the leading desktop 3D printer maker with one of the high-end 3D printer makers. I think there will be more partnerships or acquisitions, or both, as this industry continues to grow.
That's not all. Microsoft said in June that the Windows 8.1 update will have built-in support for desktop 3D printing via an SDK. The partners it mentions as helping to make this possible include 3D Systems, Autodesk, Dassault, Formlabs, MakerBot, and Stratasys, among others. 3D Systems was the first to demonstrate a printer driver for Windows 8.1, for its Cube 3D printer, at Microsoft's Build 2013 developer conference.
I think this development is huge -- much bigger than Staples offering 3D printing services or Amazon selling 3D printers and supplies -- and at least as huge as the two consolidations we just mentioned. Giving engineers the ability to use their PCs to print out objects as easily as they do word processing documents (notice I didn't say design as easily) could be a sea change bigger than when desktop computers got direct access to 2D printers. Does anyone else remember waiting in line for the old printer server?
That's probably enough to think about for one blog. Next time, I'll discuss a couple of other major shifts in progress.
In my humble opinion, I don't see the big printer companies making a big play into 3D printing right now. Even though 3D printing is hitting the general public, it is still a very small niche market compared to the huge volumes that these companies like to sell. Also, traditional laser, inkjet and thermal printing technology is very mature at this point and hasn't evolved much over the past several years (whereas 3D printing technology still is evolving). At this point, addititive printing technology doesn't fit their traditional, high-volume market strategies.
TJ, I haven't heard a whisper of anything coming into 3D printing from traditional printer makers. It's a very different set of technologies and materials. OTOH, you'd think at least one of them would be trying something and if they are, they're probably good at keeping it under wraps.
I'm looking forward to the future, but I suppose that I need to learn some 3D drafting skills!
I remember seeing my first 3D printer in college around 1990-1991. Our plastics engineering department (one of the best in the country) had a massive machine that used a laser to fuse layer by layer of some clear liquid, and the platter lowered as each layer was made. They had it located in a shop by a window, and you could watch the thing work and it was so fascinating.
They also said that the liquid used was dangerous to touch, so you had to make sure that the parts were washed before touching them. They told us that the liquid had some odd property that it wouldn't irritate you the first time that you touched it, but that your next exposure would cause skin irritation. I thought that was odd, but I didn't try touching the liquid!
Al, there's so much going on in this industry that I'm covering some of it all in one blog, like this one. I agree, the interaction among providers, users and technologies will jumpstart this set of technologies and push it into the next generation.
Thanks, Rob. I find much of this amazing myself, so I'm happy to share. 3D printing actually began back in 1988/1989 for prototypes, not long after PCs became ubiquitous and only a few years after the first Mac. I think it's also important to remember that there's more than one technology used in 3D printing and that there are even others under the wider umbrella of additive manufacturing (AM). They have somewhat different histories and evolutionary paths. That said, the technology overall has certainly been experiencing a period of intense growth and change in just the last year as many techniques and ideas and applications all come together.
Many of the new adhesives we're featuring in this slideshow are for use in automotive and other transportation applications. The rest of these new products are for a wide variety of applications including aviation, aerospace, electrical motors, electronics, industrial, and semiconductors.
A Columbia University team working on molecular-scale nano-robots with moving parts has run into wear-and-tear issues. They've become the first team to observe in detail and quantify this process, and are devising coping strategies by observing how living cells prevent aging.
Many of the new materials on display at MD&M West were developed to be strong, tough replacements for metal parts in different kinds of medical equipment: IV poles, connectors for medical devices, medical device trays, and torque-applying instruments for orthopedic surgery. Others are made for close contact with patients.
New sensor technology integrates sensors, traces, and electronics into a smart fabric for wearables that measures more dimensions -- force, location, size, twist, bend, stretch, and motion -- and displays data in 3D maps.
As we saw on the show floor this week at the Pacific Design & Manufacturing and co-located events in Anaheim, Calif., 3D printing is contributing to distributed manufacturing and being reinvented by engineers for their own needs. Meanwhile, new fasteners are appearing for wearable consumer and medical devices and Baxter Robot has another software upgrade.
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