Editor’s note: This blog post is part of a two-part series on the emergence of 3D printing. The first segment discusses how 3D printing helps businesses expedite the manufacturing process by creating viable prototypes.
Enjoying increasing popularity in the commercial and consumer markets, 3D printers have been around for longer than most people realize.
As early as 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published his account of a functional rapid prototyping system using photopolymers. In 1986, Charles “Chuck” Hull patented the stereolithgraphy apparatus (SLA) and 3D printing became more visible in the late 1980s. Hull would go on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation, one of the largest players in the market today.
According to Becoming 3D CEO Grant Sadowski, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that 3D printing gained traction, even as it was still working out the bugs. Eventually, improvements in technology, lower price points, and the introduction of consumer models led to the proliferation of 3D printers we see today.
Based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Becoming 3D consults with clients and recommends models from different manufacturers that are the best fit for their intended environments and applications. The company sells high-end products into the education market (encompassing K-12 all the way to universities) and commercial businesses, with clients all over the country ranging from Motorola and Disney to NASA, Embraer Aircraft and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“We are 3D evangelists who want to expose the technology to more people and let them experience outcomes that will improve their quality of life,” Sadowski said. “We’ve seen 3D printing create everything from a dog’s broken bone for pre-surgery planning, to components of an open-wheel racecar. There are so many different applications.”
Sadowski said he sees similarities between the 2D print industry (where he owned a managed-print-services and copier dealership for about a decade) and 3D. The types of applications of print are expanding, and he foresees an eventual consolidation of the major players in the market, either through acquisitions or mergers.
Presently, 3D printing helps businesses expedite the manufacturing process by creating viable prototypes in hours and days rather than weeks and months. Additionally, 3D printing can reduce labor and materials costs in producing prototypes. Smaller companies can even rent 3D printers as a more cost-effective option, and short-run production is becoming more of a reality but still has a long way to go.
Sadowski said some companies are now considering 3D printing as an alternative to full production manufacturing, actually printing the final products themselves (such as cell phone cases) rather than just the prototypes. With global powerhouses like HP entering this space, that concept is evolving from an interesting thought to a reality.
With vast experience in electromechanical applications and an acknowledgement of an unmet need, Bell and Howell began servicing 3D printers in 2015. We recently signed an agreement with Becoming 3D to help install and service the products it sells.
Editor’s note: Part two of this series explores some of the challenges of the current 3D print market.