Business Technology

3D Hubs CEO Bram de Zwart says SMEs are poised to dominate the 3D printing sector

9 min read

04 April 2019

3D printing is no longer a niche sub-sector for tech-savvy companies to get involved in. In fact, evidence shows that 3D printing technology will become the usual practice for many companies, and for SMEs in particular. Business owners should get to grips with what the technology is, and what it can offer their businesses before they miss the boat. Let's start with a 3D printing 101 session with industry insider, 3D Hub's Founder and CEO, Bram de Zwart, to find out more.

3D printing is not some faraway concept for the future, it has well and truly arrived. Considering the fact that the global market for 3D printing and services is expected to grow to almost 50 billion U.S. dollars by 2025, 3D printing looks set to be one of the most disruptive business technologies of our times.

Are you feeling a little lost on the topic? Well, Founder and CEO of 3D Hubs, Bram de Zwart, is here to say that businesses, and SMEs, in particular, need not be afraid of 3D printing. In fact, they have much to gain from this new and ever-growing technology.

Why does 3D printing matter for businesses?

Different companies — even different departments of the same company — grasp different benefits of 3D printing. Engineers at technologically-advanced companies — aerospace, medical, and automotive, for example — will be drawn to the design freedom that enables them to create perfectly tailored parts with organic shapes, minimising the weight and part count of the designs in question while enhancing their performance.

Today, the majority of engineers perceive 3D printing as the optimal way to manufacture prototypes. Speedy design iteration is crucial when developing a new product. What’s more, unlike other manufacturing technologies, there’s no need for minimum order quantities for 3D printing — one is enough, which is ideal for prototyping.

What are the measurable business benefits of 3D printing?

From an operational perspective, local and on-demand manufacturing brings enormous time and cost savings. A digital factory with 3D printers at its heart can be set up anywhere, allowing businesses to manufacture spare parts and other components, when they need them and where they need them.

No capital investments (CAPEX) needed nor operational expenses and maintenance (OPEX). This is where the value of outsourcing 3D printing to an external service becomes most apparent, particularly for SMEs, as such services facilitate high-quality parts in different materials without having to invest in substantial resources.

Online 3D printing services specifically streamline the ordering process through software, reducing the time to production from weeks to minutes — comparable to ordering an Uber or something from Amazon.

So, the term “online” refers to these highly automated manufacturing platforms, while the term “offline” includes traditional services and in-house 3D printing, where most processes are still done manually. It’s also worth noting that 3D printing is often cheaper than traditional manufacturing.

When it comes to prototyping and low-volume production (< 100 parts), 3D printing is almost always the most cost-effective manufacturing option today — especially for plastics. Storage and transportation costs are another factor to bear in mind.

Why are SMEs, especially those with a strong focus on technology, such pioneers of online 3D printing services?

While online 3D printing services are used by companies both large and small, SMEs are the main pioneers of online manufacturing services for two reasons. First, they’re less likely to have industrial-grade manufacturing capabilities within their own walls.

Second, they are much more flexible when it comes to adopting new solutions and technologies. Similar patterns emerge in other manufacturing services, such as CNC machining and Injection molding. Here, again, SMEs were the first to adopt the benefits of streamlined online services.

As a result, 3D printing enables SMEs to access unprecedented production capacity, meaning they can get to market more quickly. All of this encourages competition while creating new job opportunities.

Why is the UK such a front-runner for online 3D printing services in the European market?

In the UK, manufacturing has always been the backbone of the economy. Significant investments and R&D have been made by both the public and private sectors into advanced manufacturing, which includes 3D printing, to enable the UK to compete internationally.

A recent study published by the European Commission shows that Britain is ahead of other European countries when it comes to the adoption of online platforms in general. British universities, such as Loughborough University and Nottingham University, also have a lengthy history of research in 3D printing; they were some of the first in the world to incorporate it into their curricula.

As such, 3D printing and online services have clearly been in the mind of British engineers for many years already, so it’s no surprise that they are leading the charge in Europe when it comes to 3D printing services.

Why are larger companies not adopting online 3D printing services as quickly as SMEs?

Larger companies are adopting online 3D printing, but they are doing it at a slower pace. This is because a combination of legacy systems, legal requirements, and lists of certified suppliers prohibit them being as flexible as SMEs. On top of this, 3D printing remains an emerging technology, with most large enterprises still testing the waters.

Through internal R&D, they are trying to understand both the benefits and the limitations of the technology. Once this has been established, the technology can extend to their suppliers. Online solutions will play a vital role here, as the operational efficiency they offer are unique.

What are the different kinds of materials available for 3D printing?

With metal, the main application we see today in 3D printing comes predominantly from the aerospace and medical industries. This is because of the very high cost of the current laser-based process compared to traditional manufacturing technologies.

Still, this is starting to change now, so we are very excited to see how the new technologies that are starting to hit the market will affect future trends in metal 3D printing.

For plastics, 3D printing plastics is either used for cost-effective, swift prototyping or — in some cases — for functional applications to replace machined or injection molded parts. Composite material — for example, nylon filled with carbon fibres — are soaring in popularity, as they can be used to replace metal parts.

Why are businesses only now deciding to invest seriously in 3D printing?

It’s taken some time for the technology to reach its current level of maturity. Only now have 3D printing processes started to compete with traditional manufacturing in terms of material properties and production capabilities.

Reliability is critical for engineering applications, and we see that standardisation and certification is another trend that drives forward industrial adoption.

Engineers want to receive the same repeatable, result every time they send something to print. Of course, we will never replace all kinds of manufacturing. The technology has many limitations that only now are we starting to understand fully.

For example, most parts will need to be post-processed and finished before they are ready to use. This is why we see 3D printing as a piece in the greater digital manufacturing puzzle that will work synergistically with other digital manufacturing technologies, like CNC machining and low-run injection molding.

Today, the size of the 3D printing market is estimated at approximately $10 billion. As we see the technology evolving from prototyping and low-run-production (<100 parts) into manufacturing (>100 parts), this brings fresh possibilities for growth. It’s highly probable that 3D printing will eventually capture 1% to 5% of the $13T global manufacturing market, which gives an enormous room for growth.