The Future of Additive Fabrication Technology
Additive fabrication (AF) has developed into three basic categories: 3D printing for product design and concept modeling; mid-range systems for fit and function applications and master patterns; and high-end systems for the rapid manufacture of custom and short-run production parts. As these categories and “sub-industries” develop, the machines and their manufacturers will become much more specialized
The market for 3D printing will continue to expand as prices are forced downward and part quality improves. Many models and prototype parts that are now being outsourced and produced on expensive additive systems will be built on relatively inexpensive machines. This practice will expand dramatically in the future as demand grows for quick, low-cost design and modeling aids.
The use of AF for rigorous prototyping and testing will help preserve mainstream rapid prototyping as a viable option. Improvements in materials with one or more properties that simulate production materials will maintain the appeal of mid-range systems. However, as 3D printers gain ground in both accuracy and material selection, they will take some of the market away from these systems. In response, mid-range systems will be increasingly focused on rapid manufacturing markets.
The next frontier is to apply the technology to the actual manufacture of end-use parts. Considering the array of possibilities, the market potential is enormous. However, it will take years to develop. In the meantime, compelling examples of rapid manufacturing will stimulate the development of the next generation of systems. These machines will eventually affect a wide range of industries and applications around the world. Product ideas that were once impractical due to tooling and other costs will become a reality.
Note: The previous information was excerpted from Wohlers Report 2007, a 220-page global study that focuses on the advances in additive fabrication worldwide. A detailed overview of the report, as well as additional information on the market and industry, are available at
Wohlers Talk: Most People Cannot Design
Historically, additive fabrication technology has been used for applications such as modeling, prototyping, and making patterns for silicone rubber molds. In recent years, a growing number of companies have used it for custom and replacement part manufacturing, short-run production, and even series production. Research by Wohlers Associates shows that manufacturing with AF has grown from 3.9% in 2003 to 11.7% in 2007. (See the graph at
As this trend continues, we can expect to see a much wider range of audiences embrace AF for the manufacture of almost everything imaginable. This activity will be supported by AF systems that dip down to $5,000 in price. When this occurs, these compact manufacturing systems will show up in unexpected places. Individuals operating from a spare room in their homes will manufacture one-off parts and finished products for a broad spectrum of customers.
Growing interest in AF could lead to anyone designing anything and then having it manufactured in an affordable way for the first time. Of course, there will be limitations in size, dimensional accuracy, and material options, especially with the inexpensive systems. The biggest limitation of all will be the abilities of the people doing the design. Most consumers do not have the basic knowledge and skills to create an interesting or useful product. What’s more, the average consumer has little interest in creating new designs, let alone the desire to learn how to use design software.
Even so, entrepreneurs will capitalize on a wealth of opportunities presented by low-cost AF. As they better understand the design deficiencies among the population, they will develop approaches to personalized design and manufacturing with specific limits built into the process. Nike’s nikeid.com provides a glimpse of how this might be possible. This beautifully created website permits you to create a custom pair of shoes quickly and affordably. Within a few minutes, you can personalize shoes using a range of interesting colors and you can add a school mascot and two-digit initials to the shoes.
In the future, many websites will appear that offer libraries of objects. An individual might select a vintage car, for example, from a library of automobiles. This person will be given the opportunity to select the style of wheels, headlights, front grill, hood ornament, and color, and indicate whether it is a convertible or hardtop. The site will allow you to make other design changes, such as altering the curve of a fender, but within preset limits. Making these kinds of changes would make the model car truly custom. A few clicks later, your collectable will be in the queue for production and shipment.
Indeed, AF will be used to produce custom products by a wide range of consumers. As the price of these “personal factories” drop, the idea will expand into new businesses that may be difficult to fathom. Most consumers cannot design, so tools will become available to assist them with the process of creating one-of-a-kind products.
Note: Wohlers Talk is a blog that offers views, perspective, and commentary related to rapid product development and a wide range of other topics. More than 140 commentaries have been published since February 2003. To view them, visit
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