Developments in 3D printing

By April 18, 2012 April 20th, 2012 One Comment

I’m in Leuven, Belgium for most of this week visiting 3D printing leader Materialise and attending their 3D printing conference. For most of you Materialise is a lead contender for the ‘most successful and innovative European company you’ve never heard of’. The business is 20 years old, has 1,000 employees in 15-20 countries, and most importantly works on a lot of amazing projects. Some of them are inspirational from a design perspective, others from a business growth perspective (particularly in the medical field), some for their sheer amazingness, and still others for their beneficial impact on the environment and other world issues.

I’m here because it seems to me we are on the cusp of a massive increase in consumer use of these technologies, but the surprising thing for me at this conference so far has been the extent to which 3D printing has been adopted in other industries. Just about every company I talk to here is doubling sales each year.

The hearing aid industry is perhaps the most advanced user of 3D printing, where due to the benefits of personalised better fitting devices and improved performance from audio channel structures not possible with conventional manufacturing over 10m 3D printed hearing aids are now in use, including virtually all new ones. 3D printed Knee replacements, hip replacements, dental implants, teeth braces, precisely fixtures and fittings, and engineering components are also all seeing massive growth

This market growth is backed up by a lot of great stories and numbers that I’ve been asked not to share, but I will say that some of it is truly incredible, particularly the inside story of the recent Belgian face transplant.

It is also interesting to think about where this is going next. As the Materialise guys see it, at the moment 3D printing in volume is rarely cost effective for anything with a volume greater than a large marble or maybe a tennis ball. Improvements in technology and materials costs are driving costs down fast though and applications with slightly larger volumes are therefore good candidates for adoption of 3D printing in the near future.

At the moment these technologies are being put to incredible uses, but they are too expensive for most large scale applications. That is changing fast though as advances are driving down prices and increasing quality.