By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
Today, 3D printers can make dental parts, hip replacement joints, food, toys, jewelry and more. The futuristic technology can even print human tissue and recreate human organs.
But few know one of the technologies behind the 3D printing industry began at the University of Texas in Austin.
The pioneers of 3D printing met in Austin last week for the 25th annual International Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium, the world’s leading research-focused summit on 3D manufacturing.
For 25 years, the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas has hosted the group.
Only 40 people attended the first meeting in 1989, which was held in a conference room instead of an auditorium, said Carl Deckard, one of the inventors and developers of “Selective Laser Sintering,” the technology at the forefront of 3D printing.
Deckard developed “Selective Laser Sintering” with Joe Beaman, a professor at UT. Deckard was working on his undergraduate degree and later his masters and Ph.D. in the UT Mechanical Engineering Department.
“SLS has grown to be one of the world’s most advanced and promising manufacturing methods in use today,” according to a UT Mechanical Engineering blog post detailing the birth of the 3D printing industry. “The SLS patents were the highest revenue generating intellectual property out of UT Austin for many years,” and even though they are set to expire soon, UT continues to be highly involved in the 3D printing industry, according to the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT.
Deckard eventually spun out a company, DTM, to commercialize the technology.
Meanwhile, Chuck Hull, co-founder and chief technology officer of 3D Systems, now based in Rock Hills, South Carolina, invented a competing technology called stereolithography.
“I worked at small company and developed the first additive manufacturing technology in a back lab by myself,” Hull said. The owner wasn’t interested in investing in the technology so Hull spun out a company and licensed the technology, founding 3D Systems in 1986 in Valencia, Calif. Hull invented the first stereolithography (SLA) rapid prototyping system.
Hull’s company, 3D Systems bought DTM in 2001 and remains the industry leader in additive manufacturing today. 3D Systems had a record $513 million in sales last year, up 45 percent. It is the fastest growing tech company on the New York Stock Exchange, Hull said.
Its main U.S. competitor is Stratasys, based in Minneapolis, inventors of fused deposition modeling, a technique used by the popular MakerBot consumer-focused 3D printers, which Stratasys acquired in 2013. Lisa Crump and her husband Scott founded Stratasys in 1988.Hull, Deckard, Lisa Crump, Terry Wohlers, an expert on the 3D printing industry, and Dave Bourell, professor of mechanical engineering at the Cockrell School, who organized the event, sat down with Silicon Hills News last week to discuss the evolution of the industry.
The industry has changed dramatically in 25 years and these pioneers have been on the forefront of those changes.
Today, 3D printers have produced more than 90,000 titanium hip replacement devices, half of which have been implanted into humans, Wohlers said.
Every week, 3D Systems machines produce 20,000 dental coping devices, the main structure of a crown or a bridge, Wohlers said.
Three-dimensional printing has transformed entire industries like aerospace, automotive and especially healthcare.
“It’s used in so many different fields it’s hard to characterize,” Wohlers said. “Today, you’ve probably touched 25 products that have been touched by this technology. Jewelry, the cars you drive in, the planes you drive in have benefited from prototyping.”
Boeing has 16 different aircraft that use tens of thousands of parts created with 3D laser sintering technology, Wohlers said.
The Automotive Industry Adopted 3D Printing Early
The first 3D Systems machine using stereolithography, the SLA 250, made a ten inch by ten inch part for a large automotive company that needed rapid prototyping, Hull said. But the technology quickly spread to other industries like medical and aerospace, he said.
“It’s a down and dirty industry machine that the general public doesn’t know about,” Hull said.
Today, the “maker” movement, which has hobbyists building toys, tools, parts and more in their garages with 3D printers, has popularized an industrial technology used for decades in plants for prototyping.
Consumers can readily buy 3D printers from companies like MakerBot, which sells its latest model for $2,800 at Staples, Home Depot or on Amazon.com.
“Things didn’t look quite this way 25 years ago,” said Crump with Stratasys.
The Influence of 3D Printing on the Medical Industry
Stratasys’ first customer, Biomed, made custom hips and knees.
“We went from zero in sales in 1988 to $487 million in revenues for 2013,” Crump said.
The medical device companies were early adopters and leaders in this field, she said.
The 3D printing technology is not just making products, but changing people’s lives, Crump said.
Emma, a six-year-old girl, suffers from a degenerative muscular disease that doesn’t allow her to use her arms, but with an exoskeleton made using Stratasys’ 3D printing technology, she can use her arms.
“It’s awe inspiring seeing this little girl – she calls them her magic arms – because now she can color and do things that a normal six year old can do,” Crump said.
The technology has also successfully helped doctors separate conjoined twins, Hull said. Doctors have used 3D Systems printers to create models of the patients before an operation to do practice exploratory surgery.
And one of the emerging areas of medical applications is the printing of organs and human tissue using 3D printers.
The 3D printing technology allows manufactures to create customized products affordably. With conventional manufacturing, a mold can cost $50,000 and 3D printing does away with the need for that, Wohlers said.
3D Printing On Demand
With 3D manufacturing, companies can create digital inventories and produce products on demand, he said. It cuts down on storage, wasted products and unnecessary production.
“When this area first started we were mainly making parts that were designed to be made some other way,” Hull said. “Now people are designing for these processes and are taking advantage of the process.”
The 3D Printing Impact on Aerospace
The 3D printing process has transformed the airplane manufacturing industry.
“Weight is so important in aerospace,” Deckard said “If you take one pound off a commercial airliner, you save $100,000 in fuel over the lifetime of the plane.”
Airplane makers like Boeing and Aerobus expect to have hundreds of 3D Printers to make plane parts within five years, Wohlers said.
Efforts in 3D printing date back to the 1950s but the machines needed Computer Aided Design software that didn’t exist until the 1980s. And the computing power wasn’t sufficient back then either.
Faster computers, better software and cheaper storage make 3D printing accessible to more people now, said Bourell with UT. That accessibility has ignited the interest of kids, he said.
“Five years ago to get students involved in manufacturing you had to do a sell job,” he said. “Now the students are coming in and saying they want to do 3D printing.”
“They don’t see it as product development,” he said. “They see it as making stuff.”
During the last few decades, the U.S. has become a nation of consumers, Wohlers said.
“We have to bring back the nation that was once famous for making stuff,” he said.
3D Printing is igniting that inventive spirit, especially in young people and creating excitement about engineering and manufacturing this country hasn’t seen since the space race in the 1960s, Wohlers said.
Other factors bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. include the availability of cheap natural gas, Deckard said.
“In a lot of areas, the cost of the product isn’t as much driven by labor as it has been in the past,” he said. “When the labor content goes down there’s less reason to go off shore.”
The momentum for 3D printing is just going to continue to build, Hull said.
Now it’s about targeting certain applications and perfecting them and increasing production speed, Hull said.
“Transition from using it for modeling, prototyping and tooling to using it for manufacturing,” he said.
A Booming Multi-Billion Dollar Industry
Overall, the 3D printing industry grew 35 percent last year and has averaged 32 percent for the last five years, Wohlers said.
“The industry is going to be in the tens of billions of dollars,” he said.
If it captures just two percent of the $10.5 trillion worldwide manufacturing industry that translates into a $210 billion industry, Wohlers said. Last year, the worldwide industry for 3D printing topped $3.1 billion.
Eventually, everyone could have a 3D printer in their house just like they have a computer printer, said Crump with Stratasys.
Later this year, 3D Systems will begin selling its Chef Jet, a 3D confectionary printer aimed at professional chefs, Hull said. The printer can make 3D chocolates, cake toppers, sugar skulls and more.
“Some of the products are so exquisite you don’t want to eat them,” Hull said.In Los Angeles, 3D Systems operates the Sugar Lab. They bring in chefs and let them use the 3D printing technology to create edible products, he said. Food printing is becoming a huge industry. Just about anything that can go through a nozzle such as peanut butter, frosting, chocolate and more can be used in 3D printing.
The first 3D printer is also going to space soon. Made In Space, a Mountain View-based startup, has created a 3D printer that will allow astronauts on the International Space Station to print parts and tools and other stuff in space. The printer will be included in the SpaceX CRS-4 launch to resupply the ISS, scheduled for September.
Already, 3D printed parts have made it off the earth. NASA used 3D printed parts on the Mars Rover.
“All of us have been in this since the ‘80s, but what we are experiencing now, we’ve never seen it before in our lives,” Wohlers said. “The government and states are supporting it. But the big brands are investing – Amazon has a store with 3D printed products. Google, Microsoft, Adobe, GE, Home Depot, some of the biggest brands in the world are getting into this. Some are motivated, right or wrong, by the fact that other big brands are getting into it.”
With all this money being invested that can really accelerate the development of transitioning ideas into products and services, Hull said.
“Now it’s just applications development,” he said. “I talk to young inventors a lot and my conclusion is, clearly, much of the future has not been invented yet.”