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Steve Melito, Owner, Thunderbolt Business Services
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Steve Melito, Owner, Thunderbolt Business Services

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“Most of the attention is focused on the West, but demand for 3DP is strong and growing in Asia. Just recently, the Statysys subsidiary Solidscape joined forces with Kangshuo Group Co. Ltd. to create China’s largest 3D printing service bureau,” says Steve Melito, Owner, Thunderbolt Business Services in conversation with Nishant Kashyap.

Tell us about the global 3D printing industry…

To understand where we are, we must know where we have been. 3D printing is not new. Chuck Hull, the father of 3DP, received his patent for a stereolithography apparatus (SLA) back in 1986. So why did it take so long for manufacturers to embrace 3D printing? Technological changes since the 1980s have been revolutionary, of course, but technology is only part of the explanation for what we are seeing now.

Yes, there have been major technological advances in terms of 3DP software, materials, and machinery. But are these great leaps forward a function of something else? Bryan Dow, an investment banker with Mooreland Partners, thinks that they are. Given the data that he’s amassed, he makes a convincing case.

Between 1987 and 2010, 3D printing companies raised $300 million. From 2011 through 2015, they have raised nearly $4 billion in public offerings. The difference is a factor of 13, and that’s no small feat in the risk-adverse years following the Great Recession. The rate of mergers and acquisitions has also increased, and there have been some high-dollar deals. So when we talk about current scenarios in 3DP, we need to follow the money, too.

What’s the market size of global 3D printing industry?

Estimates vary. Gartner predicts that the global 3D printing industry will grow from $1.6B in 2015 to $13.4B in 2018. In terms of the compound annual growth rate (CAGR), that’s a whopping 103.1%. Allied Market Research (AMR) claims that the industry’s current size is larger than Gartner’s $1.6B estimate, but AMR forecasts slower growth. Specifically, AMR predicts that 3DP will reach $8.6B in 2020 with a CAGR of 20.6%.

Worhlers Report 2014 also provides some interesting numbers. Starting from a baseline of $3.07B in revenue in 2013, the report predicts revenues of $12.8B by 2018 and $21B by 2020. So which numbers should we believe? Let’s look at this in a different way. None of the estimates are the same, of course, but all of them forecast not just significant growth, but accelerating growth later in the decade. Manufacturers need to understand this.

How has the technology evolved over the years? What are the breakthroughs that we could expect to see in the near future?

High-speed, non-metallic 3D printing is hot in 2015. Earlier this year, inventor Joseph DeSimone demonstrated how his Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) system can print complex models up to 100 times faster than current SLA machines. J. Scott Schiller of Hewlett Packer also pitted his company’s 3DP technology against SLA. Over 38 hours, the HP Multi Jet printed 12,600 identical gears vs. just 1000 from an SLA machine. That’s incredible.

Let’s not forget about 3D Systems, however. High Speed Fab Grade (HSFG) printing can deposit 4 billion full colour polymer dots ever minute. That’s 50 times faster than current jetting technologies. Manufacturers care about speed, of course, but flexibility is also important. 3D Systems HSFG can work as a standalone system or as part of existing workflow. So the potential markets include larger, well-established companies as well as smaller startups. Look for growth in both market segments.

3D printing has some limitations such as mass manufacturing and material. Do you think this will change and will 3D printing replace other manufacturing technology (up to some extent)?

3D printing will overcome these limitations and replace other manufacturing technologies in ways that some companies may struggle to envision. That’s part of the reason why 3DP is a disruptive technology. Let’s consider a somewhat unusual example – food processing. Additive manufacturing isn’t just about plastics and metal powders. Food and beverage processors are manufacturers, too, and we can learn from them.

Recently, PepsiCo announced the production of a potato chip with a 3D printer. This isn’t the first item that’s been produced with 3D printing, but most have been unappetizing. The new chips were developed via 3D modeling, however. Dr. Mehmood Khan, the company’s chief scientific officer, says that the company plans to patent not just the 3D design, but also the cutter and “mouth experience”. That’s a lot of intellectual property for a common snack food.

What are the challenges faced by the industry?

The biggest challenges are the cost of the equipment, and the challenge of finding and working with a 3DP service bureau. Let me give you an example. Recently, I spoke with a multi-national manufacturer that has 3D printers at their European offices, but not in the United States. The American subsidiary wanted to prototype a plastic part, but could not cost-justify the purchase of new equipment. Service bureaus could do the work, but not quickly enough.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The manufacturer was connected with a 3D printing center at a nearby state university. The 3DP center was able to do the work cost-effectively, and delivered a part that was close to production quality. Just as importantly, the prototype arrived sooner than later. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to speed time-to-market, and now the manufacturer has a continuing relationship with the 3DP center.

What are the demand trend and how the demand differs in Western and Asian countries?

Most of the attention is focused on the West, but demand for 3DP is strong and growing in Asia. Just recently, the Statysys subsidiary Solidscape joined forces with Kangshuo Group Co. Ltd. to create China’s largest 3D printing service bureau. This is an 80,000 square foot facility that will be equipped with 100 Solidscape 3D printers. Consider that in light of the example I shared about the U.S. subsidiary that needed to prototype a plastic part.

So it’s not just new equipment sales that are worth tracking. To understand demand in the 3D printing industry, we also need to look at the growth of service bureaus. Of course, the development of new 3DP materials is important, too. What if Asian countries were to take the lead in, say, the development of 3D printed electrically-conductive materials? That could be game changer in consumer and medical electronics.

Machine tool companies like DMG, Trumpf and now GF Machining solution is entering in to 3D printing business. Do you think it is a right move for machine tool builders?

Yes, of course. Again, part of the reason that 3DP is so disruptive is that manufacturers cannot anticipate all of its effects and applications. Ignoring a new technology is the surest way to get caught off guard, and successful businesses want to minimise uncertainty. Even if you can’t give all of the answers, you can still think of possible questions. To their credit, the machine tool companies that you mention are taking the lead.

Do you feel 3D printing is a threat for machine tool builders as it replaces small part of machining activities?

Not necessarily. One of my clients makes surface finishing and deburring tools that are used during post-machining operations. I believe that there will continue to be a strong demand for their products. 3D printed parts use support materials, and these materials are removed either mechanically or chemically. Breaking off the support materials can leave burrs and other surface imperfections. The chemical process leaves a smoother finish, but may not be desirable for some industries and applications.

Your views on Indian 3D printing industry…

My views on the Indian 3D printing industry are similar to my views about what 3DP means for US manufacturers. In order for small-to-medium enterprises to embrace additive manufacturing, either the equipment costs must fall or the number of service bureaus must rise. If India’s businesses, universities, and government at all levels can work together to provide centers where companies can use 3D printers, the possibilities are truly exciting.

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