Inside 3D Printing Conference brings reality to the hype

Speakers at the inaugural “Inside 3D Printing Conference and Exhibition” discuss reality of the state of digital manufacturing.

Inside 3D printing conferenceI wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City this week. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you’ll know I try to write balanced stories without the media hype so prevalent in 3D Printing reporting. I was pleasantly surprised that the speakers at the inaugural conference struck a balance between showing the fantastic possibilities in the future and giving accurate descriptions of where the technology is today for manufacturing, education and R&D.

Cornell University professor Hod Lipson organized the talks, which may have contributed to the high quality of 3D Printing information. There were no sales pitches and no one claimed that 3D printing could solve every fabrication problem. The 3,000 attendees from 35 countries who came ranged from industry insiders, designers, educators, and of course the investment types.

In the opening Keynote address, 3D Systems Corporation CEO Avi Reichental stated we live in “exponential times” and predicted 8–10 times growth for the industry in the next decade. However, he went on to clarify that 3D Printers would NOT replace other machine tools but rather integrate with them. He also envisioned hybridized machines to create parts using multiple technologies.

Mr. Reichental goes on to explain, “There is no one-size-fits all answer that can address all applications. That’s why we have 7 print engines. We now have more than 100 materials so that we can also fit the right material for the job.” Those of us in manufacturing would concur with this production setting view.

In a session on aerospace and automotive 3D Printing applications, Brett Lyons from the Boeing Corporation explained that while the aerospace giant acquired their first additive manufacturing machine in 1992, the pace of development has been slower than for consumer products. Safety is the ultimate concern when building aircraft, and policies and procedures must be established to ensure they are using a material that is robust and has known properties. That said, 20,000 production parts are used on Boeing planes, but mostly in areas where safety is not compromised.

Dr. Lawrence Bonassar, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at 
Cornell University, reported on fantastic work being done in bio-printing. Again, patient safety and FDA regulations have made the adoption of 3D Printing in the medical market slower than in the consumer market. Dr. Bonassar also predicted that bio-printing would be available on a routine basis to patients in about 5 years, which seems to be a realistic estimate.

Phil Reeves, the managing Director of ECONOLYST, spoke to problems associated with 3D printing. He gave great examples of economic limitations of 3D Printing, and had 4 points in increase product value. These included:

  • Exploiting 3D printing’s ability to create complex geometries
  • Increasing part functionality
  • Offering product personalization
  • Monetizing environmental benefits

He predicts that wide-scale adoption of additive manufacturing in the automotive and aerospace industries will take a decade and require a billion dollar investment.
Terry Wohlers, Principal Consultant and President, Wohlers Associates, Inc. has worked in additive manufacturing for almost 30 years. Mr. Wohlers gave examples of companies moving 3D Printing beyond prototyping to production. These include Medical Modeling, who produces 70,000 surgical guides annually that are 3D printed.

Mr. Wohlers presented an entertaining list of myths surrounding 3D Printing that are generated by the mainstream media.

  • Push a Button & walk away technology
    There are many steps in pre- and post-production, including design of CAD file. 3D Printing is not as easy as it looks.
  • Just as inexpensive to build one part at a time as to mass produce
    Scaling is key to lowering cost.
  • 3D Printing will replace conventional manufacturing
    It is not be a universal solution, especially for high volume production of the same thing. 3D Printing makes sense when we have high geometry complexity, low volume, and preferably both.
  • AM can print guns
    Can print some parts but not all. 1960’s machine shop can produce better parts for a gun than today’s best 3DPrinters.
  • Everyone will own and operate a 3D Printer
    Computers are for everyone because we were already reading, writing, listening to music, etc. but in an analog way. We’re not all designing right now.

Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, of course spoke on the day the company he founded announced receiving an additional $30 million investment. While not giving away corporate secrets, he declared the 3D Printing service bureau plans to open more facilities that are closer to customer centers in a distributed manufacturing model. The future is clearly bright and spirits were high as the meeting wound down.