In 2009 expiring 3D printing extrusive technology patents opened up a tsunami of creativity as the open source community swept in to that space.
RepRap, a British-led open source initiative, liberated that area creating open blue-print, self-replicating standard printers which have slashed entry costs into 3D printing. Entry has dropped from £15,000 in 2008 right down to a still dropping £500, obscene mark-ups on related consumables have gone, and there is now a thriving global open applications 3D printing community.
That whole area is buzzing and beginning to move out of its technical/engineering phase towards more general consumer take-up.
And there's a lot more to come. Round 2 kicks off in 2014 when key patents expire for another key 3D printing technology based on sintering.
How does 3D Printing fit with the Internet of Things?
Some people question whether or not 3D Printing fits into the Internet of Things world. To me it's a no-brainer. That is a siloed proprietary world question, not one for the open world.
The Internet of Things is about everything connecting to everything. So the future could well see clusters of sensors collaborating to enable the assembly of 3D images for remote capture and assembly at any time, anywhere.
But it's as much (and probably more) about people as about technology. To me it's highly significant that both the Internet of Things and 3-D printing communities attract a similar mix of highly creative people from across the sciences and the arts. Artists, architects, designers, craftspeople, academics, software and hardware engineers are all collaborating across both areas in a multi-cultural crucible for robust innovation. For them the silos don't exist!
3D printing, like the Internet of Things, comprises long standing technologies which are on the cusp of a transformational bottom-up expansion accelerated by an ecosystem of open source deployment.
Margins Ripe for Puncturing
To illustrate the commercial potential: the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year had just a scatter of tiny booths relating to 3-D printing. There were 10 times as many booths selling plastic i-Phone cases. And they were 10 times bigger. That points to a lot of margin ripe for puncturing.
The irony: plastic i-Phone cases retail for £15-£25, while the 3-D printing community say you could print one yourself at home for 50p!
Such huge price-point differences will fuel a revolution in home manufacturing within 18 months, and disintermediate the massive margins currently enjoyed by companies such as those i-Phone case sellers.
Patent Expiry: the accelerator for open 3D Printing
Although 3D printing technology came of age in the late 1980s (with first experiments in the 1960s) its current expansion phase had to wait impatiently in the wings until 2009 when key patents expired in one of the key 3D printing technologies - FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), where objects are built up layer by layer with extruded melted plastic.
That unleashed the open source 3D printing movement brilliantly inspired and led by British academic Dr Adrian Bowyer with the open source RepRap (Replicating Rapid Platform) initiative. Based on an open Arduino platform RepRap enabled heavily standardised, open source, self-replicating 3D print ecosystems to drive that step change reduction in entry costs.
Bowyer set up RepRap in 2004 at the University of Bath with a goal of slashing the entry price for 3D printing from the then $40k to just $500. By 2008, and in time for the 2009 FDM patent expiries), RepRap had attracted a global following and was fully off the ground with provenly replicable product poised ready for the open source community.
Right now about 50% of a RepRap printer can replicate itself. The parts that cannot yet be replicated have simplified standardised design for simple traditional manufacture anywhere in the world.
I must say there's something organically surrealistic and satisfying watching a 3D printer produce parts for itself or other 3D printers.
Just as was the case with open source software in the 1990s, RepRap also spawned a variety of activity and companies based on open source principles. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Makerbot which produces Do-It-Yourself starter kits which fit together along the lines of self-assembly home furniture, with minimal soldering.
New Boost for Applications - from the Arts too!
While 3D printing has been around for a long time for specialist printing and prototyping in various engineering, medical, architectural and other application areas, open source has brought an explosion of cheap, bottom up open design available to all. Low cost 3D printing has generated a huge wave of open source applications available via sites such as Thingiverse and PirateBay, and beginning to raise copyright worries among some manufacturers. While lawyers are rubbing their hands in anticipation as what some call a Copyright Armageddon approaches.
In many ways artists and craftspeople are forging new directions by printing objects that would otherwise have been impossible to manufacture at low cost, if at all. These include designs incorporating “floating objects” such as balls within balls. One jewellery designer for example, Mark Bloomfield, makes closed jewellery boxes, complete with hinges, with jewellery pieces inside - all printed in a tough nylon.
More sensational 3D printing headlines relate to possibilities ranging from bioprinting edible cultured meat through printing cell and tissue structure, to worries about the potential of printing working handguns. As ever, the technology is neutral - it demands an ecosystem to ensure it is used wisely.
Fresh boost to 3D Printing as SLS Patents expire soon
This recent huge escalation of activity in 3D printing has been stimulated by one set of FDM patents expiring.
FDM technology is well suited to the consumer market, being simpler and cheap, with a wide range of colours. It is also appealing ecologically with the use of PLA (Polylactide), a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane. The downside is that it is slow, needs better resolution and its finished products have a lower melting temperature than those printed via sintering technologies.We can expect to see another step boost of open source 3D printing activity related to the expiry in 2014 (just next year!) of the more sophisticated sintering technology - SLS (Selective Layer Sintering). With SLS technology metal or plastics powder trails, sintered by a laser beam, are built up in vertical layers.
The capability differences with the FDM technology is reflected in the price difference the hardware. Today's professional SLS machines start at £15,000 with no upper price limit whereas the price range for a proprietary FDM machine is currently £5,000-£20,000 (itself compared to an open source FDM printer price of £500-£1500).
SLS technology is much better than FDM for handling the more robust plastics, especially ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) a tough high temperature resistant thermoplastic used for robust professional applications. SLS also enables a resolution down to 50-20 microns (compared to FDM's 250-150 microns).
Time is ripe to get to grips with 3D printing
So currently the 3D printing world is full of promise. “There is an opportunity here for best in class entrepreneurs and investors,” says French venture capitalist and doyen of the European 3D printing community Sylvain Preumont. He says the disproportionately most dynamic in Europe for 3D printing in Europe is the Netherlands, followed by Germany.
Preumont urges the 3D printing communities and anyone who will listen that “now is the time to get your hands dirty and get into 3D printing and discover it.” He reckons that by next year it will be too late for those wanting to benefit from early adoption as the market is maturing so rapidly so it will be difficult to break in at base ground level.
The traditional 3D printing industry appears to be a bit transfixed, as is usual in periods of rapid change. Their quarterly targets rely on continually increasing high margins from their patent protected technologies. With open source breaching that model they are losing opportunities to push downwards and scale outwards so their long term futures look to consolidate more in specialist high level, high price markets.
Paradigm Shift in Manufacturing to Enable Global Cottage Industries
The real impact is that the bottom up revolution in 3D printing looks to transform light manufacturing industries. Just as consumer can print and publish information whenever they want on their home system, disintermediating publishers and print shops, so they will be able to download designs, for coat-hooks, doorstops or bath plugs and simply print them out. That looks to disintermediate manufacturers.
Disintermediation through open source 3D printing is simply part of a greater sea change and paradigm shift looming through the wider Internet of Things. It is a wake up call to the kind of structural changes to current business and social models that the Internet of Things will bring before too long.