At the Techonomy conference, industry leaders discuss the future of three-dimensional printing -- and how the technology will change markets forever.
MARANA, Ariz. - Three-dimensional printing: hype, or hope?
That's the question industry leaders sought to answer at the Techonomy conference here in the sunny greater Tucson area. A panel of experts -- Geomagic's Ping Fu, Shapeways' Peter Weijmarshausen and PARC's Stephen Hoover, with CNET's own Paul Sloan moderating -- discussed the promises, pitfalls and potential of a technology that allows almost anyone to turn a digital file into a perfect copy of a physical object, from puzzle pieces to airplane wings, in materials such as plastic, metal and ru bberlike polymers.
Can 3D printing change the world? Let's dive in. ...
For now, 3D printing will remain a prosumer pursuit. Four companies control most of the market for serious 3D printers, though companies like MakerBot are making inroads with enthusiasts.
The quality of those machines may not be as good, but "it gets people excited," Fu said. "The PC was not that good [when it first came out] either. But it got better."
Hoover said new economies could be built on the back of the technology. "There aren't a lot of Fortune 500 companies today in the United States who make manufacturing equipment," he warned. "A lot of the money may not be in manufacturing equipment, but in the service bureaus and the materials."
"We should be thinking: how do we keep at the state of the art?" he asked, citing United States' lost leadership in machine tools. "Making these systems will not be the million-dollar market."
Fu was optimistic about the global ripple effects of 3D printing technology.
"All markets in the future will be niche markets," she said. "Twenty-first century manufacturing is going to be on-demand."
Weijmarshausen concurred. "It's going to be hard to see mass-market [manufacturing] as traditional," he said. "The whole [notion of] hypes and trends is going to be diminished with [this] freedom."
Plus, the life cycle of products will change because designers can iterate faster. It's just like when software moved from the retail store to the web, Weijmarshausen said -- you have continuous user feedback on your product, and you can geographically localize products, too.
And that's all without mentioning the massive implications for the medical devices market, where personalization is everything. "That kind of stuff is so obvious to me to have an enormous impact," he said. Still, he admitted: "The consumer side of things is just as exciting, though it's less easy to predict."
Fu interjected: "Shoes! Why should we all search for a pair that fits?" The panel's audience laughed, breaking into spontaneous, knowing applause.
The same goes for that ever-elusive pair of jeans that fit, Fu said. What if you could get scanned for the perfect pair?
"In 10 years, all of the jean shops will go to the museum," she said. "And people will think, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you used to buy jeans that way.' "
The possibilities for 3D printing are almost endless. "You go from life-saving to lifestyle," she said. "That's the evolution."
Doesn't that sound a lot like hype?
"I believe that advanced manufacturing is coming, on-demand manufacturing is coming, and it's going to be a very significant 21st century advancement," Fu said. "I don't think what's happening is hype. It's basically 15 years' worth of overnight success."