I’ve been thinking allot about what I call “Objects 2.0” and the impact we will see from 3D printing. I had opportunity to speak recently with John Kawola, the CEO of Z Corporation, one of the leading manufacturers of 3D printers. (I’ve spoken to the heads of 3D Systems, Objet, Makerbot, etc., and may post those conversations too.) I asked him about where he saw the technology going over the next decade and a half, what does he think the technological limits are, the hurdles, and the market opportunity (print on demand and professional print versus print at the home). Here is our exchange…
Johnny Ryan: Where do you see the future of the industry (in terms of growth, application, and impact over the next 5, 10 and 15 years)?
John Kawola: We’re excited by the rapid growth in software applications generating printable 3D data, and expect the trend to accelerate. New professional applications for engineering and architecture. Computer games like World of Warcraft. Mapping applications like Google Earth. Medical and dental applications. Even software for the arts.
Professionals and sophisticated digital consumers demand output devices consistent with familiar devices in the 2D world. Namely devices capable of producing high-quality 3D models with full-color graphics, all delivered fast and at low cost. That’s our target market.
I see the industry timeline this way:
- 30% annual growth in professional markets including engineers, architects, product designers, the medical/dental community and educators. Advanced hobbyists and “”prosumers” will be part of this, with the need met by both in-house 3D printers and third-party services. The pace of growth is tied to user access to software generating 3D data, plus improvements in the cost and quality of 3D printed goods (today not equal to a mass-manufactured equivalent).
- As the cost and quality of 3D printed goods close in on manufactured goods, we’ll see mass-market adoption of customizable goods. Historically consumers are unwilling to trade quality for low cost in order to gain customization, and 3D printing will be no different. Therefore we’re confident that mass market adoption will be served first by centralized equipment and service providers delivering high-quality output, similar to mainstream adoption of 2D printing (60’s-70’s), photo printing (80’s-90’s), customized clothing (00’s), and footwear (very recently).
The long-term growth of the industry depends on three things:
- Advances in 3D printing technology. Will the technology achieve a price / performance level making custom goods competitive with manufactured goods?
- Will demand for customized objects grow at the aggressive pace of customized clothing, shoes, etc.?
- Will tools and communities evolve enabling consumers to easily customize goods to be produced?
We believe they will, and Z Corporation will drive the evolution.
Johnny Ryan: What is your position on the importance of desktop printing – where do you see the balance in the future between desktop and professional 3D printing? A number of companies are going the consumer route, Zcorp appears not to be going this way – what is your focus and why?
John Kawola: I couldn’t agree more that consumer applications will drive demand for 3D printed parts. Still, let me challenge whether desktop 3D printers inherently drive consumer 3D printing, and whether consumer 3D printing is best served by a $5,000 3D printer. I don’t think so.
Current desktop 3D printing is good, but unlike desktop 2D printing. These devices are still relatively large compared to 2D printers, and generate some heat, noise and motion. Today desktop 3D printing is impractical.
Second, I don’t equate desktop use with consumer adoption. Consumers will welcome a printer that sits on the desk, but not unless the printer is affordable to purchase and use every day, plus easy to operate.
Third, I’m not confident that $5,000 is low enough for consumer adoption. It is certainly a better price for professionals and will extend access to “prosumers,” but few consumers have a $5,000 hobby/entertainment device in the home. The bottom line is that lower cost 3D printing will certainly drive greater adoption in existing markets regardless of the footprint. But for professionals the quality of the output and the device matters a lot. So far all attempts to develop a 3D printer with a $5,000 price point have necessitated tradeoffs in quality unacceptable to professionals.
So, what will drive rapid consumer adoption of 3D printing near term and in what form? The evolution of digital photography provides clues. As digital photography became ubiquitous and users had the option of choosing in-home photo printers or the convenience of higher-quality, low cost photos accessible online or at a local retailer, quality and convenience carried the day. I expect more consumers will want 3D printed parts ordered online and delivered to the home, instead of printing those parts themselves. Today there are many B-to-C websites 3D printing custom parts for consumers, and all of them are using Z Corp technology.
We believe strongly that the adoption of consumer 3D printing will not be driven by cheap 3D printers, but by a Web 2.0-enabled design and share infrastructure combined with 3D printers that make fabulous parts.
Johnny Ryan: What are the outer limits for the technology over the next decade and a half? – for example, do you see a time in the future when integrated chip fabrication at nm level will be possible?
John Kawola: There are few limits to what is possible with additive fabrication. However, increased demand will depend as much on what is viable economically as what is possible technically.
In almost all cases, additive fabrication would be an alternative to a current manufacturing method. Therefore it would have to match the quality of the output (materials, accuracy, etc) while providing a clear time/cost benefit. Additive fabrication is likely to meet the increasing demand for custom, low volume applications. But at the same time, conventional methods of producing lower volume goods at low cost are emerging.
In the consumer world, we believe high throughput, lowest operating cost, and full color will be required to meet the quality and low price demands of the customer.
Johnny Ryan: What are the primary hurdles that 3D printing face technologically at the present time?
John Kawola: Ease of use for one. All current technologies have some level of pre-process and post process, and some have waste streams incompatible with sustainable design and manufacturing. For these technologies to be more widely used, the systems need to be green and as easy to use as a coke machine. Put in the data, out pops the model. The industry is not there yet.
Also access to new software applications generating 3D-printable data. The applications are coming fast , as I noted earlier (medical, 3D maps, art, on-line games/avatars), but today most 3D data is generated by product design engineers using 3D CAD software. I’m confident this hurdle will be met quickly.
Johnny Ryan: There is an important question that I’d like to return to – do you foresee a point at which integrated chip fabrication at nm level will be possible, i.e. 3D printing of objects with integrated circuits, transistors, etc., of the kind that Hod Lipson and others have spoken of?
John Kawola: I believe this is certainly possible, although probably difficult in the next 10-15 years. It would require processes that can generate the exact geometry and material properties required. All additive manufacturing or 3DP processes today generate geometry and material properties that approximate the parts made using conventional methods. For many applications, this approximation is good enough. The question when we get down to electronics, will an approximation be good enough? I generally don’t think so. So, you need to build to the same spec.
Technologically possible. But, it again will depend on the economic drivers. Will there be enough unique value and applications that create demand for (1) development and (2) deployment of this type of technology vs. conventional methods of making IC and other electronic components.
Johnny Ryan: Thanks for the clarification John. I take it from your answer that you dont see Voxel Fabbing as a solution?
John Kawola: No, voxel fabbing could very well be a way to get there. Conceptually is makes complete sense. The challenge will be how long it will take to commercialize to truly replicate the performance of current IC and other electronics and will the economic drivers be there to push that commercialization along. Also, remember that current IC and electronic parts and manufacturing methods will also continue to evolve and improve. So, there is always moving target. You are not trying to disrupt what exists today. You are trying to disrupt what will exist when you are ready with your alternative.