3D printing is not a new technology, in fact the main processes in use in today’s printers were all discovered in the late 80s, however, only recently did the prices become appealing to the consumer markets as some of the most accessible and reliable printers can now be bought around $200. While the diffusion of such a technology is still low, the shift from early adoption to an early majority of users amongst companies and individuals is slowly taking place as 3D printers become increasingly more common in education, and businesses. What is 3D printing enabling?
Do you want to build a rocket? Well go ahead! RelativitySpace is a company in the “New Space” industry which aims at launching rockets that are made only of 3D printed parts from engine to nose. They have already succeeded in securing $2.3 billion of valuation from venture capitals, making it the 2ndmost valuable private space company after SpaceX and has managed to find an agreement with NASA for future experimental missions. The company aims to get from raw materials to flight in 60 days, effectively vertically integrating every steps of the process with the help of 3D printing. This allows for higher standards of reliability as all specifications are all set, produced and checked in house, it is also a way to support the local economy as materials are sourced from nearby distributors regardless of higher prices thanks to the costs avoided by 3D printing the parts. It is also a way for the company to go through trial-and-error phases very quickly and be able to iterate designs faster. Printing its own rockets has enabled the company to lower the barrier to entry in this industry, set its own standards, lower their suppliers’ bargaining power to a minimum and hopefully in the future will permit to efficiently scale the production of their rockets. As a quick note on space exploration, 3D printing comes up more and more frequently and can be found in solutions including 3D printing Lunar habitats for NASA or printing organs in 0G for example.
While RelativitySpace has already created a strong business around additive manufacturing, many businesses start to benefit from the possibilities that arose with affordable and reliable 3D printing. It enables rapid prototyping and proof of concept where before you would have to pay for expensive molding technics not suitable for small batch prototyping. It can also be used as a production tool to reach lower costs and ease storage by producing closer to the actual demand thanks to more flexible production timing. Overall, it is a technology that enables the streamlining of an entire production process. Where before you had a plethora of different machines to produces different parts you can now rely on one machine as your main tool and reduce the number of other processes to carry, successfully lowering manual cycle times, improving quality checks on one well-known system and allowing for real time tweaks and troubleshooting.
Prusa Research is one of the leading manufacturers of 3D printers and has built a growing ecosystem revolving around their technology. The company was founded by a passionate tinkerer creating his own 3D printers and now produces some of the best reliable printers while empowering more and more individuals and businesses to start printing though their public hacker space and educational support. Today, Prusa squeezes the most out of their technology and successfully integrated their production processes by 3D printing themselves the parts that will make up their commercial 3D printers with those same printers. If you want to learn more about the company’s path to becoming the leader it is today, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX3pDDi9PeU.
So, some will ask if we someday will all have a 3D printer at home and be able to print parts as easily as we print on paper? As a 3D printer owner, I can tell you that the process is far from being plug and play and requires a fair amount of troubleshooting and tweaking to get good prints. However, the technology is ready for educational purposes and businesses uses for those who are ready to invest time and a bit of capital. At this stage, it is still a rapidly developing industry which has yet to become consumer friendly, but an increasing part of businesses and individuals are starting to make their way through the process. It is an enabler for creativity at any levels, whether you are an artist, an engineer, an aspiring entrepreneur or a rocket company. Afterall, it is a fairly new technology that will require new generations to be taught about in order to truly reveal its potential and trigger its broader diffusion from the most casual uses to the most fascinating ones.