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Exclusive interview with Terry Wohlers

Terry Wohlers
Terry Wohlers
Principal Consultant and President
Wohlers Associates, Inc.

– Which issues, threats, and risks do you see to the advances in 3D printing technologies?

If you are referring to using the technology for manufacturing parts that go into final products, I see a wide range of challenges and issues. If you look at the 26 years of using this technology, it has been used mostly for prototyping. The next frontier is to apply it to actual manufacturing, and that is what is so exciting about this technology. Many companies, such as Airbus, Boeing, and GE Aviation, want to use the technology for manufacturing. This, however, presents a number of challenges associated with qualifying the machines and materials and certifying new designs. Aerospace and medical are regulated, but they are two major ones that are carefully implementing this technology for manufacturing. And, these two industries are a good fit for 3D printing because their volumes are relatively low and the value and complexity of the parts they produce are high.

One of the major obstacles is the cost of the machines and the materials. The machines are quite expensive. Of course, we read about low-cost systems, but these machines are not capable of producing parts that are used for final products, in most cases, and certainly not aerospace or medical parts. These machines are better suited for hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers. The price of machines that major corporations are using for prototyping and manufacturing is typically in the range of $250,000 to $1 million, so machine cost is a major consideration. Another consideration is the cost of the materials. When you are producing low quantities, such as prototypes, this cost is not an issue, because you are only building a few parts and the value of these parts is high. But, when you get into manufacturing quantities, it becomes a problem. This is because most of the materials are priced at a 50-100 times more than similar materials used in conventional manufacturing. If you look around your office, you see a lot of plastic parts and most of them are injection molded. The material which goes into making these parts costs $2-$4 per kg. The equivalent material for additive manufacturing can cost $100-300 per kg, so you can see the vast difference.

– Where do you see the future in terms of price? With higher demand, will the price go down?

With increasing competition from market growth, and as patents expire, prices will decline. A greater number of machines and companies will compete, providing an opportunity to make money, even at a lower cost for machines and materials. Without a doubt, the prices will be driven down through competition and from the demand for higher volumes of parts.

– In which areas/sectors do you see potential for the future application of additive manufacturing?

Aerospace and medical industries are among the pioneers in the use of additive manufacturing. An area related to medical is the dental industry. It has taken off in a big way with many different applications. Another is jewelry. What is especially interesting about jewelry is that almost anyone can get into the jewelry business if they want because it is not regulated like aerospace and medical. We have seen it take off in a pretty big way among professional jewelers and amateur designers.

On the medical front, we are seeing a lot of research and development and some success in the area of printing living cells that survive and thrive. The media has oversimplified it with stories suggesting we will soon be able to buy replacement body parts. This is not the case. I spoke with Anthony Atala, MD of Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He is arguably the top expert on the subject of using 3D printing for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. I asked when we expect to see body parts, such as kidneys, livers, and hearts, made by 3D printing. He was unable to give a specific timeframe, but he comments led me to believe that it could be decades away.

– Could this technology contribute to a new “industrial revolution”?

I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. We are seeing some elements of what could turn into a manufacturing revolution. Honestly, I believe it will more be of an evolution, similar to have we have experienced in recent years. We are equipping many people with design and manufacturing tools for the first time. Yet, we will continue to manufacture most of our products, such as computers, stadium seats, and automobile bodies, as they have in the past. Even so, it is creating an entirely new way of designing and manufacturing products. Organizations such as Airbus, Boeing, and NASA are rethinking their entire design process and looking at manufacturing in a new way. Boeing, for example, has been consolidating several parts into one and it is reducing labor and eliminating entire assembly lines. The redesign of parts and assemblies is also reducing material and weight, and is disrupting the way we think about design. On a broader scale: it allows almost anyone, located anywhere, to become a manufacturer. It could be an individual in a small village in Zambia. If they have access to a computer and a 3D printer, they can start manufacturing. From this point of view, additive manufacturing has the potential to become revolutionary in certain ways, in certain regions, in certain businesses. As far as it totally changing everything associated with manufacturing, I don’t see it happening.

– Hewlett Packard (HP) announced it would come into the 3D printing market in 2014. How could such a market entry look like and what might be the consequences?

HP was in it for a while when it partnered with Stratasys to off an HP-branded 3D printer, manufactured by Stratasys. The partnership was in place for a couple of years, so HP has some experience with the technology. It has also done considerable research and development over the years, if you consider the patents the company has received. If done correctly, HP could ignite new competition that I spoke of earlier.

– Will children print their Legos at home in 10 years’ time?

Legos are relatively simple parts and printed commercially in tens of millions inexpensively. 3D printers are capable of printing custom Lego parts, they will compliment the standard Lego products. I expect that 99% of Legos will be produced using traditional injection molding and 1% or less will be custom.

– Do you see any major developments in 2014?

We will certainly see the wave of investment continue through 2014, or even accelerate. We will also see more investment from government agencies at all levels from around the world, and also at educational institutions. Large corporations will invest a great deal of money in these technologies, and this is something we have already begun to see in 2013 and 2014. It is a very exciting time to be a part of this industry.

30 January, 2014 - 04.31 PM

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