A Big Noise at Low Volume: The 3D Printing Revolution is coming

There was talk a few years back of whether Moore’s Law exists for the world of 3D printing. The opinions varied from ‘Yes it does exist, and could have staggering implications’ to ‘even if it doesn’t exist, 3D printing growth is unstoppable’. The overall consensus is that while the speed of progress in 3D printing might not be quite in line with that of computing power, the rate of development is opening up the door to potentially revolutionary effects. We are now reaching a tipping point where the promise of the revolutionary power of 3D printing can be delivered.

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The 3D revolution was originally touted as being one that would happen in the home. DIY enthusiasts embraced the new technology and dreamt of a time when desktop 3D printers would be as ubiquitous as microwaves. Everyone would be able to manufacture their own personal products using files that were shared via a burgeoning community. This dream has more or less bitten the dust, although we can’t write it off totally. Where the real revolution is coming from isn’t from home 3D printing, but from low volume industrial and professional 3D printing.

One of the primary applications in which 3D printing proved itself to be invaluable is in the rapid production of prototypes. According to a recent Wohler Associates report, around a third of all 3D printing activity is creating 3D prototypes and models. The speed and cost of prototyping has dropped dramatically due to the increased quality and availability of 3D printing. This means that it is quicker and cheaper to get a hardware product from the design stage to the mass production stage, while also eliminating errors and problems. Once you go above a certain volume, it is always cheaper to use molds and forms for mass production, so one of the primary purposes of 3D printing has been to get products to the larger volume stages of production.

3D printed cars and houses are a reality

As the cost of 3D printing continues to drop and the speed continues to increase, we are reaching the point where 3D printing will actually become a viable alternative for production at low volume. Inside five years, we may reach a point where 3D printing will be cost-effective for volumes of up to 5,000 units, for example. When this point is reached, it totally opens up this means of production. Rather than having a choice of either very expensive short runs of products or mass production at low cost, we will have an option that is somewhere in between. This intermediary option is one that could potentially lead 3D printing to replace production line assembly and form a key part of what Jeremy Rifkin calls the ‘third industrial revolution’.  

The advantages of cost-effective low volume production and 3D printing are huge. Rather than mass manufacturing for forecast or anticipated demand, products can be made as a response to actual demand. This will lead to a much better use of resources and more accurate supply. Low volume 3D printing will also allow for more local and customised production, rather than production relying on large scale manufacturing plants, it can be achieved by smaller operations. This will cut down on the transport cost of products, allowing them to be made where they are needed as a response to demand rather than built elsewhere and then shipped.

We’re seeing the evolution of 3D printing in this way right now. The first 3D printed electric car was recently unveiled. It can be built inside a mere three days for an estimated cost of $7,500, which is a far cry from the turnaround time and cost of traditional car manufacturing. The car offers an amazing opportunity for developing nations. Being able to build a cost-effective vehicle as a response to increasing mobility needs is potentially revolutionary. And as wild as this sounds, Austin-based startup ICON have developed a method for 3D printing cement houses in 12-24 hours at a cost of just $10,000, with the goal of reducing this to $4,000.

Low volume production of houses and cars is now a reality with 3D printing. As the capabilities of the technology continue to increase in the next years, we’re heading to some really exciting places. The revolution is underway.