Future perfect for 3D printing?
Despite the recent fall in value of stocks of certain 3D printing companies, Kieron Salter of additive manufacturing specialist KWSP, believes the long-term future for the sector is still positive.
Like all disruptive technologies, such as the early railways of the mid-19th century and the dot.com phenomenon of the late 1990s, additive manufacturing has been cited as the next big disappointment to investors.
Stoked by the prospect of consumers printing their own toys, guns, cars and even human organs, the value of many 3D printing companies swelled in the period leading up to late 2014. Clearly, the anticipation of the technology’s widespread use across industrialised nations has attracted big money from both private and institutional investors.
However, this weight of expectation has been largely misplaced, with too much focus on the short-term growth of the technology in the UK domestic market. The true value of additive manufacturing will be realised over a much longer timescale, with its industrial application at the centre of sustainable adoption.
Granted, the use of over the counter, domestic 3D printers captures media headlines and is attractive to early adopters, but long-term commercial use of the technology will be a much slower-burn affair.
3D printing has somewhat been a victim of its own success – driven by the explosion in its domestic and entry level use. While it’s been effective in enabling users to do "impossible stuff", the downside is due to the low added value and therefore poor margins in the smaller end of the market. Only true commercial industrial usage will bring the technology back into value.
Meaningful revenues, and therefore sustainable growth, will only come from industrial design, tooling and applications where additive manufacturing can improve and enhance existing processes. However, the adoption of new manufacturing methodologies cannot take place overnight.
The fiscal realities of industrial supply chains – from concept design to validated product – mean that step changes in manufacturing need to be tested and adopted gradually, given the significant risk of switching to new technologies.
As the development of additive manufacturing moves into mainstream industrialised sectors such as medical, automotive and aerospace, its use is becoming increasingly validated by engineers and designers. It is a crucial coming of age moment for 3D printing, which is demonstrating its value as part of the 21st century’s manufacturing infrastructure.
Additive manufacturing’s ability to cut out expensive steps in traditional engineering processes, reduce the number of businesses involved in the supply chain, cut down on waste and transportation costs, while facilitating on-demand, bespoke manufacturing are its true strengths.
Once industry demonstrates the true commercial worth of additive manufacturing, values will be reflected in share prices and company valuations.
Kieron Salter is founder and managing director of engineering firm KWSP which specialises in additive manufacturing
Image credit: GE Aviation