3D printing: Light-years away, or here to stay?

This young and rapidly expanding technology is being used for a breadth of personal and commercial implementations — everything from medical-standard bone replacements and product prototypes, to NASA telescopes, clothing, and confectionery. And the 3D printing industry is showing remarkable growth, with IDC predicting a 29 per cent rise in compound annual revenue growth from 2012-2017, while Credit Suisse has suggested the market will be 357 per cent larger than initially thought.

Yet 3D printing today remains in a state of infancy, and therefore forecasts are mixed. Several 3D printer manufacturers have slashed profit forecasts, citing higher-than-expected spend on research and manufacturing, and sparking fears of a ‘bubble’ in the industry.

But what’s clear from these same printer-makers, and the wider market, is the strength of demand for printers in professional use. 3D printing has compelling uses within the consumer market, especially amongst hobbyists, but this demand is being outstripped by that from small businesses looking to capitalise on the benefits of so-called ‘desktop’ 3D printing.

In the business arena, 3D printing has moved beyond early adoption and is already being successfully deployed in a range of applications where cost and time-to-market are vital. It’s excelling as a means of allowing designers and engineers to design, build, iterate and innovate more often, more affordably, and at a faster rate:

Fast and affordable 3D prototyping

The technology makes it easier for engineers to detect design mistakes and optimise early-on in the design process. The result? Increased creativity: 3D printing makes it easy to experiment with new product designs and artistic models inexpensively, and to bring innovative prototypes to life more quickly and affordably.

Championing micro-manufacturing

Many start-ups are using 3D printing to create smaller, less expensive batches of their product prototypes, bypassing the need for venture capitalism to fund these initiatives. Consider the benefit to fashion and jewellery designers, for example, or indeed any small business looking to create custom promotional materials and client gifts inexpensively.

3D printing paves the way for products to be manufactured much closer to their point of purchase or consumption, meaning savings on shipping, greater options for customisation, and ultimately the ability to manufacture ‘everywhere.’

This means that all businesses are now able to move quickly across all manufacturing processes — from rapid prototyping and conceptual design, to CAD modelling and the creation of the final product.

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