Interviews

3D printing has arrived, and SMEs are leading the charge

5 min read

04 April 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

3D printing is no longer a niche sub-sector for tech-savvy companies. What's more, it's SMEs that are breaking new ground in the sector and taking it mainstream.

3D printing has well and truly arrived. Who can ignore it? The lucrative possibilities are endless. The global market for 3D printing and services is expected to grow to almost 50 billion U.S. dollars by 2025, making it likely to be one of the biggest business technologies to invest in.

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 growing technology. After all, it’s the small businesses that seem to be leading the charge in the sector.

Real Business, (RB): Why should businesses care about 3D printing?

Bram de Zwart, (BZ): 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.

RB: Why are SMEs becoming pioneers of online 3D printing services?

BZ: 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. 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.

RB: 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.

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

BZ: 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.

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

BZ: 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.

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.