3D Printing — Barriers to Adoption (Part 1)
Rachel Park posted on August 07, 2012 | 13280 views

barriers to 3D printing growthIn my inaugural post for ENGINEERING.com, I referred to 3D printing as ”a more inclusive, accessible industrial tool for product development.” This was in relation to the original rapid prototyping technologies of the early 90s. The intervening years have seen costs come down in terms of price/performance ratios and developments with processing capabilities and materials that have opened up a whole raft of applications for industrial users.

Indeed, for prototyping applications, 3D printing is widely recognized as an efficient way of proving concepts, allowing multiple cost-effective iterations within the design process. Form and function testing with 3D printed parts has also been a growth area for the tech, albeit often overlooked and undervalued, in my opinion. There are, of course, also some very high-end applications of 3D printing for manufacturing applications.

However, across a series of posts here on ENGINEERING.com, I want to consider why, despite the well-documented benefits that 3D printing brings, uptake, in terms of acquisition, is still hesitant across industry – particularly among SMEs (small and medium enterprises). To that end, I invited some users of different 3D printing technologies that I know — users of in-house processes and/or regular contractors of 3D printing services — to tell me what would make using the technology easier and better. These are the very best people from which to garner honest and upfront opinions — all of them prepared to share the good, the bad and the ugly issues with 3D printing.

These users cover a range of industries and applications, but essentially, they all use 3D printing because it allows them to realize the benefits of the technologies and improve their day-to-day workflows. However, they are also upfront about the limitations of the tech, and they were prepared to share.

It is my opinion that this sort of approach, rather than just a full-on, fluffy marketing assault, will engage potential users more readily.

The request I put out was intended to prompt some quotes for my original intent of a single post. However, the responses I have received have proved to be too in-depth, fervent and insightful to gloss over.

Across the responses there were, unsurprisingly, common themes, and these will be addressed in this series, which will be rounded up with a final post that poses some of the more far-reaching and future-looking postulations for 3D printing.

[NB: Some comments were just too forthright, the result of trusted relationships built over many years, while others extended to quite a few pages, so I have edited these down for convenience and to avoid offence — and possibly libel action. However, the essence remains.]

In this post, I cover the first of the five issues that stand out, those referred to again and again, which means that they need serious consideration.

Costs:

This is an obvious one but in more ways than you may know. While the capital cost of industrial-

grade 3D printers is still proving to be a barrier for many SMEs, the exorbitant, usually hidden, running costs are an even greater obstacle. Pretty much without exception, cost transparency is what users, and potential users, want — and need. 


Here is Kevin Quigley’s take. Kevin runs his own industrial product design agency and is a regular contractual user of 3D printing bureau services. He is also someone seriously looking to purchase a 3D printer for his studio.

“I need genuinely open cost comparisons — adverts for mid-range desktop 3D printers say things like £12,000! But when you analyze this, you need to add in costs for infrastructure, support, post build, etc., and soon the £12k becomes £20k. On top of that, the so-called "office friendly" printer actually needs a chemical bath, agitation tank and compressed air supply. The only system on the market aimed at the pro user that has a genuine upfront approach is the new Mojo — Stratasys is selling the package total cost. All 3D printers should be sold this way. It is simply too hard for the buyer to figure all the variations out — a bit like buying a seat of CATIA!”

Russell Beard, like Kevin, runs a product design consultancy and uses 3D printing bureau services for some of his projects. For him, cost transparency is essential. He says, “The overarching assumption is that 3D printers tend to be expensive/accurate OR cheap/crude. My experience is that most of these processes are kept 'cloak-and-dagger' due to competition and the desire to keep it pseudo-magical. This is so unhelpful for the industrial user — it would be much more useful if vendors exhibited a bit more transparency.”

Magnus Bombus (a pseudonym - I have agreed to protect his identity) quite simply states that 3D printers must be “cheap to run” if wider industrial adoption is to be fulfilled. This is backed up by Jeremy (Jez) Pullin, rapid manufacturing manager at Renishaw, who works with a wide range of industrial 3D printers day in and day out. Jez wants to see “cheap and widely available materials with a choice of suppliers charging less than £10/kg.”

Mojo 3D printerAs Kevin points out — the Mojo from Stratasys is a move in the right direction. If other vendors follow suit, which they really should, then this is one limitation of 3D printing for industrial applications that could and should be resolved sooner rather than later.

Subsequent posts in this series will consider other limitations of 3D printing that mid-range industrial users face, including materials, accuracy & surface finish, input (3D data) and color. 

Part Two >>
 |  Part Three >>  |  Part Four>>

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