3-D printing may “rock the world,” but how will it impact the plastics industry?
That was the main question I had when I read an interesting book last week, “3D Printing Will Rock the World,” by John Hornick, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in intellectual property issues.
(A style note for those who are wondering: Plastics News hyphenates “3-D” because that's Associated Press style. Many companies in the 3-D printing world do not. It's just a little awkward.)
Hornick calls 3-D printers “the most powerful machines humans have ever invented because they can make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled.”
That's a bold assertion. And at first I thought Hornick was a little over the top in some predictions about how this technology will impact … well, everything: manufacturing, design, distribution. My thinking, I admit, is colored by how the popular press has discovered the technology and made some misleading claims about its current capabilities.
But by the time I finished the 364-page book (including extensive footnotes), I was intrigued.
There have been lots of off-the-wall predictions about what 3-D printing will be able to do in the future. Imagine machines like the replicators on Star Trek, capable of making anything we desire — even replacements for functioning body parts.
Most of today's 3-D printers make prototypes and low-volume specialty products. But Hornick expects that to change very soon. In fact, he writes that those replicators may be “just around the corner.”
Already 3-D printing is disrupting the aerospace and health care sectors. And, citing a 2014 story from 3D Printing Industry News, Hornick writes that one big consumer products company “is actively looking at swapping out plastic injection molding systems” and replacing them with 3-D printers. The company is working on how industrial design will change when it shifts from molding to printing products.
Hornick is not claiming that 3-D printing will replace injection molding. Instead, he makes the point that the two technologies work well together, citing the ability to make printed tools from metal that can be rapidly fabricated for use in injection presses. That hints at an era where tooling will be cheaper and more accessible, lowering a barrier that currently keeps some new products from reaching the market.
I think the marriage of 3-D printing, molding, toolmaking and industrial design is already happening. Our reporters see it when we visit companies. Many firms have their own 3-D printing machine, and they're starting to tinker with how they can use the new capability.
Democratization of manufacturing
But Hornick is looking far beyond what's happening today. He's predicting a new industrial revolution that will spark a manufacturing renaissance. He is particularly excited about how consumers — especially young people — will use the technology.
Think of it this way: For most people, the only time they've been able to make a plastic product was when they visited a museum or zoo as a kid and put some coins in one of those cool Mold-A-Rama machines. You remember, the ones that hummed and smelled like burning plastic, and spit out brightly colored dinosaurs or other toys?
If that still sounds like fun, imagine what you could do with a machine in your home that could print anything — a toy, a spare part for a broken appliance, a new cup or plate to match your incomplete set, just as examples.
And young people will take the technology to places that we can't really imagine at this point. The fact that today's 3-D printers are severely limited in their capabilities will actually be a great stimulus to future leaps in the technology, because people will be frustrated by the low-end machines and invent amazing new ones.
Given Hornick's specialty, he devotes a lot of the book to some potential legal pitfalls for 3-D printing, primarily questions about intellectual property. For example, think about that broken appliance part example. Won't appliance companies want to prevent consumers from printing replacement parts, instead of buying them from the OEM?
Hornick argues that manufacturers would be better off adapting to the new technology instead of trying to protect their IP via the courts. He suggests manufacturers and OEMs try something more like the iTunes model. Instead of selling a physical part, go virtual instead: offer home users of 3-D printers the precise electronic blueprints for parts, so they can make more accurate parts at home. It may require a change in thinking, but he thinks it's inevitably going to happen.
Where is 3-D printing headed?
According to the Wohlers Report — the authority on 3-D printing —the global market for additive manufacturing and 3-D printing in 2015 was $5.16 billion. (That's from the recently released report, not the book, although Hornick extensively quotes Terry Wohlers and his reports.)
To put that number into some perspective, consider that 2015 North American shipments of primary plastics machinery were valued at $1.29 billion. It's not an apples-to-applies comparison, because the Wohlers number includes manufacturing, products and services, not just machines.
But I'm sure plastics machinery makers — and plastics processors — would love to see their business grow at an annual rate of 33.8 percent, like additive manufacturing has the past three years.
Are we headed to an era when many consumers will have a 3-D printer in their home, self-manufacturing products? Hornick says don't bet against it. And to skeptics, he points out that, not long ago, people didn't think most consumers would have a need for a smartphone, or even a home computer.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.