Why isn't rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing a larger industry?

One question that stuck out at the recent RAPID Show in Anaheim, Calif was; Why isn’t this show bigger with more exhibitors and more attendees? This industry is 20+ years old. When will it become large enough to fill a convention hall rather than a hotel ballroom?


In the last few years, we have seen the introduction of 3D printers small enough to fit on your desktop at prices that are less than $5000. Higher end systems offer better accuracy, faster build rates, and larger build areas. Development in materials continues at an impressive rate. The latest powdered materials are often better than conventional materials. In the last few years, the aerospace industry has turned to rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing materials, both resins and metals, for many parts on planes. So if the materials meet those exacting standards, it is reasonable to consider these materials for other applications.


So, why aren’t more of you using these systems?


Some vendors speculate that it is a lack of education. Rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing (RP/AM) is only lately being taught in schools. The industry is changing quickly and professors resist teaching it for fear that their students will know more than they do.


Some vendors speculate that it’s a mindset issue. For example, for the guy with the checkbook, the word manufacturing conjures up images of mills, lathes, stamping presses, and other equipment churning out tens to hundreds of parts per minute. When the guy with the checkbook walks by
a 3D printer or SLA/SLS machine, he sees one, maybe several parts, being made in several hours. Now, if you are going to spend more than $0.5 million on such a machine, you want your ROI fast, so you want lots of parts made per minute. But should we apply the same expectation to 3D printers and SLA/SLS machines, which cost less? Does the word manufacturing always have to be associated with speed?


Some vendors speculate that this industry has focused too long on the idea of using this equipment for “mass customization,” to the point where no one considers using them for mass production. It is true that in many cases, this type of equipment offers a sound price/performance ratio for
hearing aids, dental implants, and orthopedic parts, making “one-of” parts affordably. But is that all they are good for?


Are we thinking of “manufacturing” too narrowly? Engineers have always been restricted in design because of the limitations of traditional manufacturing equipment. What do you need from RP/AM equipment to use it for manufacturing?



A couple of other vendors mentioned that the conversation around this equipment focused too much on engineering oriented data and that not enough was being done to address the questions or concerns of the guy with the checkbook. At the show, many of the CEOs of RP/AM equipment met to discuss the issue of why isn’t this industry bigger, with one result being a new emphasis on promotion.


But what are your thoughts on the subject? What do you think needs to be done to expand the use of RP/AM systems?

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