A View from 10 Year Ago

Terry Wohlers' view from 10 years ago—Where the industry was headed and where it ended up.

By Terry Wohlers

"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the January/February 2006 issue.

In writing this column, I had to step back in time. I started by going to my PowerPoint archives, but soon discovered that my earliest files were dated 1997. I then turned to an even older archive: Hundreds of 35mm slides that date back to the late 1980s. (For young readers, 35mm slides are small transparent images that are mounted in frames and placed in a carousel tray and projected onto a screen.) I found several relevant slides that took me back 10 to 15 years and some of them spoke volumes. In some ways, we have progressed far more than many had ever imagined, but in other ways, little has changed.


One of the first slides that caught my eye was a failed stereolithography (SL) build from the mid-1990s. Instead of nicely formed automotive parts on the build platform, it showed ugly blobs of resin that did not resemble anything meaningful. Just last week, I had received jpg images of failed builds on a 3D printer that were not much different. After all of these years of developing additive processes, machines continue to fail from time to time.

A slide dated September 1992 showed that prices for SL systems ranged from $210,000 to $420,000. Today's prices for SL systems are from about $180,000 to more than $525,000—a relatively subtle change after many years of development.

3D Printers

Many of the parts from today's systems are being used in ways that are similar to more than 10 years ago. Companies continue to use them to physically model and prototype a new design. Today, however, most time and cost comparisons do not look back at the old (manual) methods of modeling and prototyping. This is because additive processes have been available for more than 18 years and are now used extensively, so there's little point in comparing systems to processes that are no longer used.

Today, companies will compare new generation additive systems, such as the latest 3D printers, to older, established additive processes. The gains can be interesting for some applications, but they are nothing like those of 10 to 13 years ago. For example, a 35mm slide from February 1993 explained how a new bleed valve design from Allied Signal's Garrett Engine Division saved the company $100,000 and 10 months using SL. A slide from September 1992 showed that AMP saved four months and $80,000 on one project using SL. Nowadays, it is rare to see these kinds of numbers.

Over the past few years, we've seen a diversity of applications that were well off the "radar screen" a decade ago. Few people—me included—envisioned some of them. One example is the use of additive processes to produce living tissue that one day might lead to the production of replacement organs for animals and human beings. Another is the production of electronic circuits using additive technology.

3D printers for concept modeling were a vision for a few more than 10 years ago. In fact, I recall having a meeting in 1990 with a founder of a startup company that today is one of the leading manufacturers in the business. He and I shared our views of how engineers would some day purchase tabletop units that would produce models quickly, safely, and inexpensively. A market for these systems is developing, but it is taking longer than he and I had envisioned.

Rapid Prototyping

I also reviewed several articles published in the 1990s to help take me back to that point in time. One published in 1997 focused on Ballistic Particle Manufacturing (BPM) from BPM Technology that became available commercially in 1996. It was a 3D printer with a single jet, so it was slow, but the deposition head offered several degrees of freedom, enabling it to deposit droplets from more than one angle. The concept held promise, but the product was introduced before it was ready and the company ran out of money before it could fix the problems and give the product had a chance.

In 1996, Stratasys rolled out its Genisys product, a benchtop unit that Stratasys was hoping would turn the world of rapid prototyping upside down. The machine was based on plastic extrusion technology that the company had acquired from IBM's Watson Research Center. Instead, the product turned Stratasys upside down as it dealt with unexpected problems that many of its customers were experiencing. Eventually, the company was able to resolve the problems. The company learned a great deal from this experience and was careful not to repeat the mistake when it introduced its Dimension product for $29,900 in early 2002.

Three months after Stratasys introduced Genisys, 3D Systems launched its Actua 3D printer. It was also plagued with problems and ThermoJet eventually replaced it. Actua and ThermoJet led to the InVision printer that is on the market today.

Mainstream rapid prototyping has not changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Today's additive systems produce better parts that cost less, but they are still being applied to many of the same types of modeling and prototyping problems. What is beginning to change is 3D printers are now robbing jobs from mainstream additive systems. Instead of producing prototypes on SL, laser sintering (LS), or high-end fused deposition modeling (FDM) systems from Stratasys, many companies are producing them on lower-cost machines from Stratasys, Z Corp., Objet Geometries, and 3D Systems. In many cases, the quality is not on par with parts from the more expensive processes, but the companies are willing to make this sacrifice to save money.

A decade ago, two types of companies would buy and operate an additive machine. It would either be a large corporation whose name you and I would likely recognize, or it would be a service provider. Today, companies that are unknown to most of us are buying systems and nearly all of these purchases are 3D printers. Previously, many of these same small companies would purchase parts from service providers, so this is creating an interesting dynamic in the marketplace. Schools are also buying 3D printers in interesting quantities. A few universities owned equipment 10 years ago, but they were the exception.

Rapid tooling was a hot topic in the mid-1990s, but interest has declined dramatically, especially over the past two to three years. At one time, nearly two dozen organizations around the world had pinned their hopes on developing a successful tooling process using an additive technology. Meanwhile, companies that produced CNC machining hardware and software continuously made enhancements to their products. As a result, it has become nearly impossible for even the best additive-based tooling processes to compete with the speed, cost, and quality of cut tooling. There are exceptions, but CNC rules this market and I do not seeing it changing any time soon.

The Next Frontier

Rapid manufacturing is the next frontier, but few people envisioned it in the mid-1990s. Already, several organizations are manufacturing parts using additive processes for series production. The hearing aid industry was the first to embrace it industry wide. Siemens and Phonak were the earliest to put additive technology into production to manufacture in-the-hear hearing aid shells. Competitors quickly followed. Today, nearly all of the major manufacturers of hearing aids are using SL and LS to produce the shells. One or two are giving the lower cost Perfactory machine from Envisiontec a try, but it's unclear at this time whether it will become popular among these companies.

Interestingly, Siemens and Phonak were not the first to research and develop the use of additive processes for hearing aid manufacturing. That distinction goes to one of their competitors. From 1989 to 1993, I had the opportunity of working closely with this company to determine whether it would work. Fundamentally, it did. In fact, the company produced more than 150 shells experimentally and even produced fully functional hearing aids with a few of them. However, the process was plagued with awkward-to-use and expensive 3D digitizing systems, slow UNIX- and DOS-based computers, little commercially available software for processing the data, and materials from the additive systems that were not suitable for hearing aids shells. Consequently, the company chose to put the effort on the back burner, but did not bring it back until after Siemens and Phonak had established its alliance and began to demonstrate success.

Some companies are replacing conventional manufacturing processes, similar to the hearing aid industry, but a growing number are producing entirely new products that before were impossible to produce any other way. An example is Align Technology with its Invisalign process of making clear plastic braces to straighten teeth. Without additive fabrication, it would have been impossible for Align to launch its business. Organizations in dentistry and medicine, such as the production of prosthetics, are seeing similar types of opportunities. Artists that were unable to fabricate highly sophisticated sculptures are now able to do so with the aid of additive technology.

In the field of electronics, Dimatix has introduced its DMP-2800 that uses an inkjet print head to produce electronic circuits. Meanwhile, Sandia National Labs has developed what it believes is the first three-dimensional circuit using an additive process. And Cornell University has produced a zinc-air battery that is capable of powering an actuator. Both were created using additive fabrication.

Bill Gates once said that we tend to overestimate how technology will change in three to five years and underestimate how it will change in eight to 10 years. Ten years ago, some of us did underestimate the vast potential of additive technology and where it would take us. Countless organizations have built enormously successful businesses and research programs around it. Meanwhile, little has changed for some mainstream users of the technology, except that they are producing better parts at a lower cost. In 2016, these same people may be chugging along as they have for the past 10 years, while others are pushing the limits of the technology, uncovering new applications, and taking it to entirely new levels.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For more information visit http://wohlersassociates.com.