This post is part of our 3D Printing Influencer Series series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
1. What are the top trends you have noticed in 3D Printing?
MB: At the high level, things like reduced price, new materials and structures, hybrid technologies, clever software, new domains and new use cases are the overall trends. From these, you get some interesting and more specific activities.
Trend #1: Working with multiple materials means you can create single parts with hard and soft places, parts that have conductive and insulative areas, or parts with different colors that both look cool or are useful, like showing wear and fractures. Imagine doing a single part that does the work of today’s 10 or 100-piece assembly
Trend #2: Additive manufacturing is much more supportive of design software techniques like generative design. We are seeing the tip of the iceberg with topology optimization and some lattice work coming out in production software but there is much more to be done with “infinite computing”, deep learning, and the move to GPUs.
Trend #3: Reduced price and reliability continue to improve. This is maybe the most important trend. At the maker level, we get to focus more on the design and less on calibrating our machines, cleaning nozzles, and getting our parts to stick. At the high end, it lets additive manufacturing compete better against more mainstream manufacturing technologies like CNC, injection molding, casting, and sheet metal forming.
Trend #4: Hybrid technologies are really interesting. In the end, drilling a hole is going to be more accurate than printing the walls of a hole. Casting can make use of 3D printing. There are also people working on combining different 3D printing technologies (e.g. FDM, powder bed, photopolymers).
2. What applications for 3D Printing make it a game changer in the tech sphere?
MB: There are so many potential game changers and it is hard to know which ones will be successful. So, let me pick a couple of my favorites from different places:
1. Electromechanical parts. For my maker friends, this is when Arduino, Beaglebone and Raspberry PI meets 3D printing. It’s the combination of software, electronics, and hardware with even more erosion of the walls between these domains. This easily expands out to the more high-end activities too. Smart parts like rotors that tell you when they are about to fail or PCBs that could be created in three dimensions as part of the device are a couple examples.
2. Generative Design. 3D printing can easily create complex parts that are very hard to design. Designers and engineers that can leverage the full capability of the additive manufacturing machine are going to have a huge advantage. Generative design and all the components that make it up (topology and lattice optimization, machine learning, digital twin simulation, manufacturing planning) will let them use their additive manufacturing machines to the maximum.
3. What is, in your opinion, the industry in which 3D Printing has the greatest disruptive impact?
MB: Today, prototyping is where the disruption has been. Additive manufacturing has clearly gone beyond that but if you ask a mechanical engineer what new tools he or she is using since school, many will now say they have a 3D Printer in their office for prototyping.
I think disruption ripples up from where we are now. In the short term, the service bureaus, machine shops, or various third parties are where the action is. I love to print my own parts but it is so much easier to upload a file and get a high quality part in the mail a few days later. As additive manufacturing starts to claim a bigger market, it starts to affect industries supporting more traditional approaches to manufacturing. For example, do you 3D print or cast your design? Design software (really design, analysis, and manufacturing software) will need to adapt to heavier and more complex uses of 3D printing. You can go on and on from here.
The long term is more fun to speculate about, especially if we assume we can have reliable, multi-material 3D printers. Would you order something off the internet if you could just print it? How would you feel about 3D printed steak? The disruption could go well outside the manufacturing industry.
4. Would you say that the 3D Printing industry is evolving as rapidly as you anticipated, less rapidly, or about as expected? What makes you say this?
✅ Innovation is not constant speed. It is big jumps, and flat curves. I remember seeing my first “3D printed” part back in the early 90’s and it was not that different than what I see today.
So, there was a big jump back then, and then another one a few years ago with the maker movement and low cost 3D printing.
I think most of us would like the innovation to go faster as we are still a long way from the hype of a few years ago. Having said that, there are some serious companies investing in the technology, mine included. Being on the inside, I can tell you there is more innovation coming.
5. What do you see as the most difficult-to-overcome limitations for 3D Printing?
MB: Reliably creating accurate parts! I bet this is true for both the hobbyist and companies with hundreds of printers. There is always a little warp, or change in microstructure, or difference between “identical” machines. To be fair, other manufacturing techniques have had tens or hundreds or even thousands of years to work out all the kinks.
A no-maintenance 3D printer that can create consistent “pushbutton” prints will rule the world!
6. What’s the future of 3D Printing?
MB: The future of 3D printing is exciting! The trajectory is toward coolness!
Being more concrete, let us assume continuous gradual improvement of reliability and accuracy of 3D printing.
Going out more than a year, I think the multi-material aspect with a wider range of materials is a fascinating trend. This really opens the design space. This might be graded materials that gradually change from one alloy to another with each layer. Or it might be discretely different materials like with laminates. Or it might be the electromechanical parts I mentioned earlier. I’m not an expert on biological 3D printing, but that is huge too.
I think the software supporting 3D printing will also change. Ask anyone from maker to high end additive manufacturer how many pieces of software they must use to get from an idea to a 3D printed part. It is likely three to five applications. That is a big pain point. STL has been an incredible workhorse but is showing its age. Please, software industry, let it retire!
Go out a bit further with generative design and then we will really be cooking in the software world taking full advantage of what your machine can do.
And then there is size. We have two trajectories here, one doing bigger things like cars and houses, one doing smaller micro structures.
About Mark Burhop
Mark Burhop is a research engineer for Siemens Corporate Technology in Princeton NJ. He is currently the project manager for a DARPA-funded project called Transformative Design. He has several patents in additive manufacturing.
At home, he has two 3D printers, a pile of Arduino and Raspberry Pis, lathe, table saw, soldering iron, and a disassembled Rumba. Physically, he hangs out at Nextfab in Philadelphia. Virtually, he is @burhop on twitter.