Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in Infocast’s Additive Disruption conference in hilly downtown San Francisco. I heard from some of the 3DP industry’s biggest leaders and forward-thinkers about important issues the 3DP industry will face in the coming years.

While an astounding breadth of issues was addressed at the three-day conference, I attempted to summarize most salient ones.

1) There is a staunch divide developing between some of most enthusiastic 3DP stakeholders, let’s call them “optimists”, and some larger manufacturers, lets call them “realists”. Optimists see 3DP as an exponentially advancing technology that will soon disrupt many mainstream industries, while realists see it as a technology that still has a ways to go before it is capable of any real intrusion into high volume manufacturing applications.

Optimists believe that 3DP solutions capable of addressing high volume manufacturing may be available in as soon as 5-7 years. Meanwhile, realists point further out, as far as 20 years. SmarTech sees the truth lying somewhere in the middle. We believe that the key to this difference is what technology you use as an analogy to gauge the rate of innovation for 3DP equipment. I will expand on this idea in a later blog post.

2) On a related note, it seems like there is a disconnect between some 3DP manufacturers and their “maker” user base. Equipment manufacturers, many of whose key employees and decision makers started their careers in other equipment industries, still think about 3DP as another type of heavy machinery. They operate under implicit assumptions about what level of print quality their customers demand based on their previous experience.

While material and component quality assurance is absolutely critical to primary applications in the aerospace, medical, and dental industries, it may not necessarily be the case for consumer and professional printer segments. Print quality standards may be overshooting a large segment of their consumer base, giving them a better print result than they really want for at a higher price. This may be a situation where print quality that’s “good enough” adequately meets the needs of consumers.

Companies that can grasp this idea of “good enough” may be able to create a competitive advantage by creating new products that boost speed and size, as well as lower cost of ownership by sacrificing some print quality. If larger 3DP companies are unable to cope with changing user preferences, perhaps smaller start-ups are better equipped to serve this emerging consumer segment.

3) Speakers at the conference couldn’t stress the importance of in-situ process monitoring systems enough. In-situ process monitoring is essential to primary applications in high value industries for two reasons: Firstly, because they can lower the time and cost associated with checking every part after its printed with point-specification processes (~5% of the costs associated with 3DP); Secondly, because they can rapidly accelerate the design process by reducing the lot size required to produce a part.

Development of these systems is a steep proposition at the onset. You need both sensors that can capture a multitude of different types of information at very high rates, as well as software that can use this data to draw accurate conclusions about the build quality. Almost all OEM’s producing metal printers are actively developing in-situ processing systems. It is also the focus of outside specialty firms like Sigma Labs Inc.

From reports at this conference, it is clear that no one company is where they need to be in terms of quality monitoring. While Concept Laser may have a slight edge right now, significant progress will have to be made to really drive industry adoption. After creating systems that can identify potential defect areas on the component, it is a whole other step to program systems that can interpret the results and alter the build order to fix these defects as they print. While test systems have been built to modify build orders for micro-welding 3D printers, no one has successfully done this on metal powder bed systems, yet.

SmarTech highlights the importance of in-situ monitoring systems for aerospace applications in our latest report Additive Manufacturing Opportunities In The Aerospace Industry: A Ten-Year Forecast.

4) The material side of 3DP looks to be choppy for the foreseeable future. Many OEM’s have made recent moves to secure their control over their materials supply chains through acquisitions. This has left many large materials companies hesitant to enter the 3DP materials space. They see 3DP OEM’s having too much leverage over what materials their customers can use in their machines.

This is a big problem for the development of the 3DP industry. The high costs of materials consequently raise the cost of ownership 3D printers above what many companies are comfortable with. OEM’s may be best served by opening up material design and development for their machines to increase material supply, lower costs, and drive machine sales, rather than closing off supply chains and limiting supply. This kind of myopic thinking will perhaps secure materials revenues for OEM’s in the short term, but at the cost of stunting the industry’s long-term growth.

5) Another hurdle on the materials side is that materials companies need to come to terms with smaller quantity materials orders. 3DP drastically reduces the wasted material used when creating a part, since only the required material is deposited on the object. From the material company’s perspective, 3DP processes are almost too efficient. The material batch sizes for these hyper-efficient processes are tiny in comparison to their normal bulk orders.

Speaking with representatives from multiple materials companies at the conference, I got the impression that the smaller material batch orders are too insignificant to support current material business models that carry high overhead costs. It will take a long time for the 3D printing to gain the scale required to make an investment if you follow the traditional ways of assessing opportunity. New business models and manufacturing methods are needed that make manufacturing small material quantities profitable. Or perhaps taking a longer

These are just a few of the many impressions I took away from Additive Disruption. Overall, the conference was a really positive experience. Stay posted, as I will continue to blog about conference takeaways.