3-D printing sounds like the stuff of science fiction: A technology that potentially can create any object of one's imagination, even human organs, with just a few computer instructions. To Star Trek fans, the technology may evoke memories of Captain Picard ordering his favorite cup of tea using a voice-activated replicator on the Starship Enterprise: "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."
But 3-D printing is real and creating renewed excitement these days. While not exactly a Star Trek replicator, a 3-D printer uses computer images to make, or "print," three-dimensional objects. People can create anything from plastic knickknacks, toys and jewelry to a prosthetic webbed foot for a crippled duck, a human kidney and even a gun, although whether the firearm will work effectively is a matter of debate.
3-D printing has been around since 1983 when Charles Hull invented stereolithography, a process that builds objects one layer at a time. The technology was used by industries to rapidly develop prototypes, hard-to-find parts and unique designs. Businesses saved time and money by being able to construct their own models, no matter how complex the build, instead of sending the job out. In recent years, home 3-D printers have begun to appear. They are simpler to operate, much cheaper and use non-toxic materials.
Suddenly, a home factory is within every consumer's reach, or so the optimists hope.
In February, 3-D printing got a boost from President Obama. During his State of the Union address, he singled out a Youngstown, Ohio, warehouse that was reopened as a state-of-the-art 3-D printing lab. Obama said the technology has "the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." He announced the launch of three more such hubs and asked Congress to help create a network of 15 sites. Obama was referring to the industrial use of 3-D printers to revive America's manufacturing sector, but the spotlight on the technology helped bring in a rush of products for the consumer market.
In May, office supplies chain Staples announced it would start carrying a 3-D printer for consumers called the Cube. Made by 3D Systems, a company founded by Hull, the Cube costs $1,300 at retail. A far cry from the stark industrial 3-D printers that used complicated computer-aided design, or CAD, software, the Cube is available in five cheery colors and is a "plug and play" device with "no training required," according to Staples's website.
In July, eBay launched a 3-D printing service called eBay Exact where consumers can order customizable products. Prices range from $9 for an iPhone case to $350 for a metal ring. Even Amazon.com has a dedicated "store" for 3-D printers and supplies now. Meanwhile, Microsoft is jumping on the bandwagon by adding support for 3-D printers in its upcoming Windows 8.1 update. Making a 3-D object from your computer "will be as easy as writing a document in Word and sending it to print," wrote Shanen Boettcher, general manager of the firm's startup business group, in a June 26 blog post. "We want this to be so simple anyone can set up their own table-top factory."
NICHE MARKET, FOR NOW
But just because 3-D printers have become more affordable does not mean many consumers will take to them. Wharton practice professor David Robertson is not convinced it will be widely adopted by the general public. "I'm not sure it will penetrate past the hobbyist market," he says. Robertson, who teaches innovation and product development, should know. He owns two Makerbot 3-D printers that cost a few thousand dollars each. The printers enable him to make such things as a Sumo robot toy for his son and sleeves for a lamp that broke. But he notes that 3-D printing is better suited to special jobs rather than run-of-the-mill creations.
Robertson compares home 3-D printing with home photo printing. Even though photo printers are affordable to consumers, most people do not own one but instead send the work out to a service that can produce high quality prints easily and inexpensively. The consumer also saves money by not having to buy costly photo paper and ink cartridges. Robertson believes the 3-D printing market will behave in the same way. While some hobbyists will want to own their printers, most folks may prefer to order from a 3-D printing service because it is easier and may be cheaper.
The home 3-D printer's limitations also crimp its appeal. It uses only one material at a time, most commonly plastic, when most objects are made of multiple materials. While printer prices have fallen from tens of thousands to as low as several hundred, they still generally range from $1,000 to $2,000, Robertson notes. Then there is the cost of the materials that go into making the products.
Moreover, home 3-D printers can be "finicky. They can break down right when you need them and require some skill and patience to keep working," Robertson adds. "The parts also aren't that accurate; they can droop and shrink while being printed." Finally, the 3-D printing process can take hours or even days to finish a job.
So where does that leave 3-D printing? It is a revolutionary technology best suited for unique products for both consumer and business uses, but the process is not efficient enough for mass production. "The technology will be used in production in cases where demand is sporadic or where true customization is required. Those are not insignificant uses, but I don't see how the technologies will be revolutionary or disruptive in manufacturing," notes Karl Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean of innovation and professor of operations and information management.
Ulrich explains that 3-D printing is a technology that works as a collection of additive manufacturing processes in which a part can be created directly from a digital file. One of the most common ways it works is for a fine ribbon of molten plastic to be squirted one thin layer at a time to form an object, he says. In a June 12 column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal on the topic, Ulrich notes that "3-D printing is intrinsically serial in nature; each unit of material has to be laid down sequentially. As a result, 3-D printing is very slow" compared to other manufacturing processes like molding.
According to Ulrich, a factory injection-molding machine can make 100 perfect plastic spoons every 15 seconds, but the best-performing 3-D printers can only create one spoon in 10 minutes and it will not be perfect. "That's a factor of 4,000 less productive," he writes, surmising that the spoon consumers get at the ice cream shop will never be 3-D printed. Ulrich concludes that 3-D printing is a "fascinating technology.... But, it won't alter the fundamental economics of production."
Instead, the technology is best suited for custom, one-of-a-kind products and the manufacturing of goods that have low, but highly sporadic demand. "3-D printing will make inroads in applications where demand is highly intermittent, and where true customization to the unique characteristics of the customer is valuable," Ulrich notes in his Journal column. One may not need a custom-made ice cream spoon, but customization will come in handy for a patient who needs a hip replacement, he says. When it comes to infrequently ordered items, such as a vintage motorcycle part, it is more efficient for a company to 3D-print it rather than keep an inventory of spares.
ROCKET ENGINE PARTS AND KIDNEYS
3-D printing is making a big impact in a variety of industries. These printers have been used to make chocolate, synthetic scaffolds for organ transplants, detailed prosthetic legs, aircraft, high-concept cars and even NASA rocket engine parts. On July 24, the space agency announced the hot-fire test results of its two 3-D-printed subscale injectors: They withstood 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit of heat without melting. While traditional injectors typically take six months to make and cost $10,000, NASA said the printed injectors took three weeks to make and cost less than $5,000.
3-D printing has even been used to make a human kidney. Surgeon Anthony Atala from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine showed off a printed kidney at a 2011 TED conference. The 3-D printer used living cells. Atala had used similar technology 10 years earlier to successfully create a working bladder for Luke Massella, a spina bifida sufferer whose kidneys were failing. Massella joined Atala on the TED stage, testifying that his life has improved greatly since the transplant.
3D Systems and Deloitte Consulting are betting that more people will take to 3-D printing. On July 11, they announced that they will jointly operate 3-D printing centers to help businesses learn about and use the technology. So far, sales of printers at 3D Systems have been robust. Second-quarter 2013 revenue rose by 45 percent year-over-year to $120.8 million, driven by the more than doubling of sales of professional printers and other products.
3D Systems claims to have seen demand step up for its Cube home printer. The company says Yamada Denki, Japan's largest consumer and electronics retailer, has started selling the printer. "We expect consumer solutions revenue to reach meaningful levels in the second half of 2013," 3D Systems said at its earnings presentation.
Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association, notes that a new trend is the scaling down of 3-D printers to make them more affordable to consumers and easier to use. "Consumers now have the ability to create a lot of different products that they've never before been able to do," he says. CEA is projecting that U.S. shipment revenues of desktop 3-D printers will reach $52.2 million this year and increase steadily until they hit $194.7 million in 2017. Unit sales are expected to nearly quadruple to 159,100 in 2017 from 41,400 this year.
The group, which organizes the largest annual consumer electronics convention in the country, CES, will be setting up its first TechZone on 3-D printing in 2014. TechZones are mini-showrooms on the exhibit floor of CES that showcase up-and-coming technologies from different vendors. Despite the excitement about home 3-D printers, Koenig notes that he has seen more robust business in 3-D printing as a service instead of consumers buying their own equipment. "There are 3-D printers consumers can purchase for themselves and companies that can do 3-D printing for you," he says. "The one gaining traction is the latter."
Kendall Whitehouse, technology and media editor at Knowledge@Wharton, says 3-D printing has generated a lot of excitement about its potential for the consumer market, but there's plenty of hype as well. "The excitement may be exceeding the reality, at least in the near term," he notes. But Whitehouse ponders a future in which consumers would make a purchase online and the retailer would send down the digital design for buyers to print out at home. "You could almost be close to teleportation, except it's an inanimate object."
This article originally appeared in Knowledge at Wharton.