Printing Money?

A 3D printed guitar.

One of the more interesting areas developing in manufacturing today is the three-dimensional printing of parts. The process is in vogue for the rapid prototyping gang. It merited a front cover story in The Economist’s April 2012 issue and was a hot area at IMTS. Recently, somebody printed a guitar of playable quality. Another party copied most of a gun, which made some law enforcement folks shiver. With the availability of guns legally and illegally, plastic guns are probably the least of our worries.

Publicly held firms like Stratasys have been bid up to stratospheric levels, partly because sales have been robust, but more because the expectations that a Hewlett Packard, desperate for a home run – or just a whiff of hope for a withering PC business – might pay a fat price for the promise of 3D printing.

Today the profits come from the relatively tiny rapid prototyping firms. The caché derives from the hobbyist, tinkerer and entrepreneurial first adopters. Will this group embrace the technology as it comes down in price, or will the 3D printer be tomorrow’s bread making machine? (I did love my bread maker back in the day, but I threw it out long ago).

To me, the most disturbing aspect of 3D printing is its potential to disrupt the value of intellectual property. The Internet has just about killed the newspaper and magazine industry and made a mess of the traditional music business. If you can make your own Gibson guitar at home, the real Gibson is going to be hurting.

Perhaps the whole idea of patents, copyrights, and brands will be obsolete in a few years. Maybe the meaning of “property” in intellectual property will soon be an artifact. The high-stakes legal battles taking place between the tech giants like Apple, Google and Samsung may be the last vestiges of the concept that intellectual “property” can actually be identified, protected, bought and sold. Eastman Kodak, now in bankruptcy, hoped its trove of patents were worth billions of dollars, but struggled to get any bids.

So is 3D printing the eventual replacement for the Mazak lathe, the Minster press, or the CNC router? Could be, if you have a 10-year time frame. I am curious if the people in the machining community see it as the next big thing in manufacturing, or the next bread machine – destined to end up in the gadget scrap heap by 2020.

Question: Is 3D printing a niché player, or will it be a major industrial/consumer product?

VIDEO: Printing a bicycle with a 3D printer

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6 thoughts on “Printing Money?

  1. Derek

    It’s a game changer – it’s here to stay.

    Not only will machines continue to improve (resolution, build time, closed loop controls, materials), but the new capabilities of design will also be interesting to witness and track.

    I’ve invested a lot of time in AM, and I do not feel like it’s the ‘bread making machine’ but rather where wireless was 15 years ago.

  2. dave

    3D printing will eventually kill CNC machining the way CNC machining killed manual machining once they get the strength of materials up. There is heavy research into 3d printing for manned deep space flight, since Fed Ex won’t deliver to Mars anytime soon.

  3. Jim Goerges

    I have had 3 different rapid prototyping machines in the last 5 years. I believe they continue to evolve. One day we will see skin grafts and a host of genetic materials be prototyped. Statasys and HP have had machines in Europe for about 3 years. We make a wide variety of products but the biggest help is the engineer can put together an idea before it hits the shop floor, and it’s right! How many times have machinists or yourselves say, I wish the engineer would had to have put this together because ….. Maybe that is the problem with politics, the lawmakers don’t participate in the laws they make because it is for someone else, kinda like healthcare, or rules of debate, or telling the truth. Anyway, it seems our engineers get projects done right before it ever hits the floor and that is a marvelous accomplishment. It is also very cool that ideas come to fruition faster than ever before, it is a big deal, and should catch on more soon.

  4. Val Zanchuk

    I think 3D printing is a tool in our fabrication tool box that will become more important as the capabilities go up and the prices come down. Now, high end applications like dental implants can be done better and faster with 3D printing than with other techniques. Also, impossible to machine geometries, perhaps also available as investment castings, are a good market. My concern is that the do-it-yourself (or steal it yourself) market will make many design and material selection mistakes they will blame on the process rather than their own engineering ignornance, and 3D printing will be discredited as a serious technique for a long time. As fabricators, if we perceive we are in the material transformation business, then 3D printing is just another transformation technique to be best used by those who understand the manufacturing and engineering processes needed to make safe, economical commercial parts.


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