Millennials Pave the Way for Normalising 3D Technologies

Rachel Park is an accomplished print and web writer and editor with more than 24 years’ experience. Her specific area of expertise is the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing sector, a market she has been immersed in since 1996.
Rachel Park is an accomplished print and web writer and editor with more than 24 years’ experience.

If you’re into 3D printing, Rachel Park doesn’t need an introduction. As a journalist, she covered the 3D printing and additive manufacturing sector since 1996. She led 3D Printing Industry as Editor in Chief and also edited Disruptive Magazine for 3D Printshow. Currently, Rachel works as an independent freelance journalist and runs her own copywriting and editing company.

Half of the Global Prototyping Market Uses 3D Printing Technologies

I have absolutely no doubts about the future of 3D printing and additive technologies — it’s going to be massive and infiltrate every area of people’s lives, directly and/or indirectly, whether they are aware of it or not. Of course, it does this indirectly in many ways already — if you fly on a new plane, drive a new car, use a mobile phone and/or computer, shave, watch TV (you get the idea) …. then in all likelihood, those products, or parts of those products, will have been developed and iterated to optimum performance using 3D printing.

However, I was interested to learn recently that Stratasys, one of the leading 3D printing companies in the world, believes that penetration into the global prototyping market is somewhere around 50%. By default, that means that there are still many companies out there that have not embraced additive technologies or, more pertinently, embedded them into their workflows. Extrapolating this further, if this is anywhere close to right, which I suspect it is, then it is not surprising that direct “consumer” interfaces with 3D printing are non-existent to low.

Going back to my introduction, the reason I believe that the future of 3D printing will be very different to the early decades we have experienced to date all comes down to education and the way that the millennial generation are “normalizing” 3D technologies. This is not just about 3D printing technologies either, it goes much further, and while it is becoming embedded within curriculums today, it also filters through to many other parts of their lives too, to the point where they expect nothing less — from a very early age.

Milennials Already have 3D Design Skills in Through Apps such as Minecraft

Within formal education systems the green shoots of this are already visible. I was present at a keynote presentation given by Hod Lipson of Columbia University last Friday, who backed this up nicely. In his experience, as an educator of design and engineering, kids are heading to college with direct experience of 3D CAD, designing, and 3D printing. Some are more sophisticated in their knowledge than others but the need to explain the technologies is to all intents and purposes negated. Moreover, it is possible to pare it back even further, he said, because as a parent he can see 2nd graders — boys and girls equally — grasping the basic concepts of designing in 3D through apps such as Minecraft. It’s a natural environment for them to play and learn in and thus post-graduation their brains will be fully trained in 3D in a way that current generations are not — they need no convincing that designing in 3D for additive technologies is a good idea and beneficial and they do not need to be ‘transitioned’.

The current generation of designers and engineers are a different story altogether — as are every other generation that has ever gone before — and are deeply invested in the traditional way of “making” things, whether professionally or otherwise. These traditional methodologies have been used over many decades, even centuries, and as a result are firmly rooted in every facet of manufacturing and therefore design for manufacturing (DfM). Thus, anyone over the age of 40 (ish) has to completely change their mindset so deep are the DfM rules embedded in their psyche. Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) is something so different that many resist or literally cannot change despite the many documented benefits — particularly at the development stages of a product — which goes someway to explain the slow uptake over the first three decades of 3D printing. I believe it is largely at the design stages that the change needs to happen — with dedicated and persistent training opportunities made available. And herein lies a further problem — 3D design software. Ironically, where we stand today, it is the 3D design software capabilities — and the software layers in-between the design and the output mechanism —  that is, to a large extent, holding back 3D printing.

Still Huge Educational Gaps Have To Be Addressed

It has been said by many that “today we can 3D print anything.” That’s not true, yet. Partly because the material palette for 3D printing, while vastly improved and improving, does not allow “anything” to be 3D printed. But it is also not true because a 3D printer can only print shapes, complex or otherwise, that can be described efficiently to a computer and translated to the printer itself. There are currently huge gaps here, which, even while they are being addressed does not permit the full potential of today’s 3D printers to be realized, let alone the 3D printers of the future.

It is for these reasons that the much-vaunted phrase: “ we are just at the beginning” by industry insiders rings so true. Even at the risk of sounding like a cliché, it is important to grasp the truth within it and work with it over the coming months and years to change the status quo. Beyond that though, the future is very bright indeed, a future where 3D printing is part of the status quo and completely normal.