The Discovery of 3D Printing by the Mainstream Press

Good news to those in the additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing industry: The mainstream media has discovered the technology.

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the September/October 2011 issue.

Good news to those in the additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing industry: The mainstream media has discovered the technology. Just this year, CNNMoney, The Colbert Report, Fortune, and Wired have published stories or aired segments on the subject. Previously, BBC News, BusinessWeek, CNBC, the Discovery Channel, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Sky News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and others have covered the technology—some multiple times.

One of the most significant was the February 12-18, 2011, issue of  The Economist, which includes two articles on the subject, “Print Me a Stradivarius,” about creating a functional replica of the legendary violin with laser sintering from EOS, and a three-page story, “The Printed World,” which provides an in-depth look at the technology and how it is expected to change the world.

Some might argue that the 3D printing coverage by the some of the media giants has presented the technology as being more advanced than it is today. While this may be true at times, I feel that the national and international press has done a fine job with the subject. More than anything else, the coverage has introduced the technology to thousands of corporate executives, politicians, researchers, educators, investors, and others who might influence future support.

“The Printed World” discusses how the printing of parts and products might transform manufacturing due to lower cost and risk. It says that no longer is it necessary to produce thousands or hundreds of thousands of a product to recoup fixed costs. This is an important reason why I believe additive manufacturing will change the way we manufacture many types of products in the future. No longer does product development and manufacturing require a large upfront investment in machines and facilities and an army of people. Today, a person with some creativity, talent, and business savvy can offer products from the comfort of home—an important message to get out to readers, many of which consider themselves entrepreneurs.

Many years ago, professor Phillip Dickens of Loughborough University stated that additive manufacturing technology could propel the world into the next industrial revolution (an argument made in The Economist). At the time, few people knew more about the technology and where it was headed. Some may have questioned his bold statement, but developments since then suggest that it could very well happen. As this concept is discussed in the broader press, people have become excited, even ecstatic, about the future possibilities.

Forbes recently ran a thought-provoking article by Mark Mills of Digital Power Capital titled “Manufacturing, 3D Printing and What China Knows About the Emerging American Century.” He explains the possible advantage the U.S. holds from its creativity, innovation, and adoption of 3D printing technology. “The poster child of the factory-of-the-future is visible in a hot new trend in the techno-dweeb sphere, so-called 3D printing,” Mills writes. He goes on to say that the trend surely worries China.

He may be right, although I’m not so sure Chinese organizations currently recognize AM and 3D printing as a threat to its manufacturing capabilities.

Mills expects manufacturing in the U.S. to follow the evolution of agriculture—a development that I have long thought would unfold. He explains that more than 40% of the U.S. workforce worked on farms about a century ago. Today, slightly more than 2% refer to themselves as farmers, yet U.S. agriculture has never been more productive. Mills claims that technology has contributed to a 600% growth in agricultural output.

Manufacturing has begun to follow this trend in productivity. Total manufacturing output in the U.S. has doubled in the past 30 years, according to Mills, while the workforce has declined from 17-million in the mid 1970s to 12-million today. This means that each manufacturing employee is now six times more productive. What’s more, the U.S. and China are roughly equal in manufacturing output, depending on which numbers you believe. Meanwhile, China employs nearly 100-million people in manufacturing—8.3 times more than the U.S.—according to Mills.

AM and 3D printing, I believe, will contribute greatly to increased manufacturing productivity in the future, especially for custom products and short-run production. Already, the technology is working its way into neighborhoods as the late Larry Rhoades, founder of Extrude Hone and Ex One, predicted many years ago. Rhoades referred to it as “neighborhood manufacturing” in a 2005 article, “The Transformation of Manufacturing in the 21st Century,” published in The Bridge, a publication of the National Academy of Engineering. Others have echoed Rhoades’ belief. Mills, for example, writes, “Personal 3D printers, personal manufacturing, some argue, offers the potential to move a lot of manufacturing into neighborhoods.”

Has the AM industry “turned the corner” in creating broad awareness around the world? The recent publicity has been good for the industry. However, even more needs to be done to make people aware of the wide range of products and business opportunities that are developing as a result of AM.