3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of creating three-dimensional products from a digital file. Instead of traditional ink, 3D printers use material, such as plastic, wood, or a metal substance, to build structures in layers based on a given mold. The possibilities are endless, if 3D printing could just get off the ground.
Until recently, 3D printing was largely considered a futuristic technology more than anything else. Indeed, it has yet to reach its full promise, in which applications are developed for a wide array of industries, ranging from the auto sector, to health care, to specialized retail. That’s because 3D technology for most engineering professionals has remained in the experimental and prototyping phase, according to a survey at Engineering.com.
However, a paradigm shift is set to occur when 3D printing hits the mainstream. Indeed, the market opportunity for 3D technology, including printers and services, is projected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion in 2018, according to the survey. That’s a compounded annual growth rate of more than 45 percent, reflecting an opportunity that doesn’t come around every day.
In order for the industry to achieve this growth, however, real-life applications of 3D technology will have to outpace the reliance on prototypes, and engineering professionals must be the ones to lead the way. While there are a few industries that have created a demand for 3D printing, mainly the medical and aerospace industries, there are a host of others that have yet to scratch the surface. Until 3D printing is the only way a product can be manufactured or becomes a vital part of the manufacturing process, 3D printing will not reach its full potential.
Two of the major roadblocks that must first be overcome are cost and time. For the most part, 3D printers have been available only on the high end for business and on the low end for individuals who use the technology for entertainment. Speed is the other hurdle, as it can take hours or longer to print a single item, depending on the product size. Mid-priced 3D printers are beginning to emerge, while the industry continues to whittle away at the speed issue.
While there is still some work to be done, you might want to consider making room on the factory shelves for 3D printers today so that you’re ready when this technology takes hold.