A New Manufacturing Staple
Thirty years have passed since 3-D printers first appeared, but only recently have they hinted at a new era of manufacturing. The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp., Morrisville, N.C. This early device, based on
stereolithography, gave way to the first truly practical 3-D printing, or
“3DP”, technology patented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993. Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a large
growth in sales of these machines as their prices dropped substantially.
Today, 3-D printers have become more of a staple in the current manufacturing space, while still piquing hobbyist interest. The 3-D printing
process usually works by selectively binding powder particles together,
layer-by-layer, using a high-resolution inkjet printhead. A thin layer of
powder is spread across the build area specified by CAD software, creating layers.
Propelled by the promise of inexpensive, highly customizable man-
ufacturing, the 3-D printer manufacturing industry has surged over
the past five years, driven by rapid technological developments, falling
costs and new applications for 3-D printing technology. The 3-D print-
ing industry has grown at a faster pace than expected, reaching about
The editors of R&D
Magazine surveyed their
readers to see what trends are
important in the 3-D print-
According to our survey,
47% of the respondents use
3-D printing as their additive
manufacturing technique of choice, with stereolithography (19%), fused
deposition modeling (17%) and direct metal laser sintering (15%) as
other common options. While 18% of the respondents already own a
3-D printer in their laboratory/organization, 39% are looking to pur-
chase one; 43% say they aren’t interested in purchasing a 3-D printer as it
doesn’t fit their research needs or their budgets.
For the respondents who utilize 3-D printers for their research and
manufacturing needs, a majority, 21%, say Stratasys, Eden Prairie,
Min., is their leading vendor, followed by 3D Systems Corp. (18%) and
MakerBot Industries LLC (16%). Common applications are in life sciences (19%), medical devices (14%) and aerospace (13%). Hobbies and
personal use represented 10% of the respondents choices.
What improvements are needed to current 3-D printing technologies? Many respondents cited cost improvements (60%), saying a
decrease in cost would spark more interest in purchasing, as cost is
everything when purchasing equipment for laboratories/organizations
and payback is expected. 46% of the respondents cited material compatibility as a needed improvement, saying that more complex manufacturing efforts drive a need for more material integration into the technique,
especially in applications regarding aerospace and medical devices.
Respondents also cited accuracy (32%) and ease-of-use (30%) as other
A vendor’s take:
Addressing cost, materials and ease-of-use
The decreasing cost of 3-D printers and their increasing adoption
across government, industrial and academic sectors is expected to spur
increased demand in coming years. Also, manufacturers of the technology are continuously focusing on the development of new 3-D printing
materials, which would provide improved surface finish, and high-strength 3-D models.
The “faster, better, cheaper” rule applies in every aspect of the 3-D
printer industry. 3-D printers that were commercialized a decade ago
have now become much more affordable and usable, with increased
accuracy and repeatability. The rapid development of consumer 3-D
printers was started with the rise of “printer kits” for serious weekend
tinkerers, moving into shrink-wrapped, usable out-of-the box printers
like 3D System’s Cube.
The past four years have marked a growth of the personal or “
pro-sumer” type of devices, such as 3-D printers used by hobbyists or
professionals doing some side work. Manufacturers like MakerBot are
leading the charge in this space. The past two years have seen marked
growth in the manufacturing space, with more high-end industrial 3-D
printing technologies like laser sintering for end-use manufacturing.
This is especially true of the aerospace industry which is quickly adopting EOS’ (Munich, Germany) direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) for its
promotion of parts integration and the ability to make complex shapes.
The medical industry is following suit with an emphasis on patient-
Amanda Boxtel standing in the
3-D printed Ekso hybrid robotic suit in Budapest. Image: 3D