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3D printing The hype the hopes the hurdles

3D printing The hype the hopes the hurdles,At the Techonomy conference, industry leaders discuss the future of three-dimensional printing -- and how the technology will change markets forever.

Geomagics Ping Fu, Shapeways Peter Weijmarshausen and PARCs Stephen Hoover spoke at the Techonomy conference in Tucson, Ariz. CNETs Paul Sloan moderated.

MARANA, Ariz. - Three-dimensional printing: hype, or hope?

Thats the question industry leaders sought to answer at the Techonomy conference here in the sunny greater Tucson area. A panel of experts -- Geomagics Ping Fu, Shapeways Peter Weijmarshausen and PARCs Stephen Hoover, with CNETs own Paul Sloan moderating -- discussed the promises, pitlls and potential of a technology that allows almost anyone to turn a digital file into a perfect copy of a physical object, from puzzle pieces to airplane wings, in materials such as plastic, metal and rubberlike polymers.

Can 3D printing change the world? Lets dive in.

The hype

Interest in the technology has increased substantially in recent years, said Weijmarshausen, whose New York-based company hosts the leading marketplace for 3D printing.

Its incredible to see how the awareness of 3D printing has increased, he said, adding that five years ago the term was niche at best. [But] were still living in a bubble a little bit.

A bubble, he said, because the average person does not know (or care) what the technology means for them. Add to that the unrealistic views that some hold for the technology, and it becomes difficult to truly relay how important this technology is for consumer and industrial manucturing, he said.

Fu, whose company has produced objects for toymaker Fisher-Price and aerospace manucturer Pratt &on Man 2, was made using a 3D printer, and is part of a full-body suit used in some of the films live-action scenes.

In todays machine, we dont see multimaterial [applications], just biomaterial, she said. In the future, theres no reason not to do multimaterial.

Multimaterial objects also require computational advances that the industry hasnt yet addressed, Weijmarshausen said. For example, the STL format standard works wonderfully for single-material printable objects, but there exists no agreed-upon definition for multi-material objects.

As a platform -- from design software through intermediaries like Shapeways to machines -- we need to solve this problem, he said. If you cant tell us what you want, we cant do anything for you.

And then theres the hardware limitation. There are three major areas of manucturing: formative (casting), subtractive (milling) and additive (3D printing). All work wonderfully on their own, but to make a complex product, you need all three, Fu said. Theres not an easy way to cross those boundaries right now.

But theres ample opportunity for innovation here, Hoover said.

There are a lot of job shops out there that can do small-lot production, he said, citing machine centers, laser cutting centers, sheet metal bending centers. If you want to make a product that uses all those manucturing processes, you have to be a manucturing engineer.

But what if you had artificial intelligence to navigate that for you? Hoover said PARC is working on techniques to really create a virtual supply chain, create an intelligent design agent to help you make that product. Three-dimensional printing is just one part of the supply chain of the future, Hoover said. It really is a grand challenge in procurement for the defense industry.

Ultimately, this is a classic digitization-democratization play, Hoover said. Every digital industry has gone through it. Why would this one be different?

Next steps

For now, 3D printing will remain a prosumer pursuit. Four companies control most of the market for serious 3D printers, though companies like MakerBot are inroads with enthusiasts.

The quality of those machines may not be as good, but it gets people excited, Fu said. The PC was not that good [when it first came out] either. But it got better.

Hoover said new economies could be built on the back of the technology. There arent a lot of Fortune 500 companies today in the United States who make manucturing equipment, he warned. A lot of the money may not be in manucturing equipment, but in the service bureaus and the materials.

We should be thinking: how do we keep at the state of the art? he asked, citing United States lost leadership in machine tools. Making these systems will not be the million-dollar market.

Fu was optimistic about the global ripple effects of 3D printing technology.

All markets in the future will be niche markets, she said. Twenty-first century manucturing is going to be on-demand.

Weijmarshausen concurred. Its going to be hard to see mass-market [manucturing] as traditional, he said. The whole [notion of] hypes and trends is going to be diminished with [this] freedom.

Plus, the life cycle of products will change because designers can iterate ster. Its just like when software moved from the retail store to the web, Weijmarshausen said -- you have continuous user feedback on your product, and you can geographically localize products, too.

And thats all without mentioning the massive implications for the medical devices market, where personalization is everything. That kind of stuff is so obvious to me to have an enormous impact, he said. Still, he admitted: The consumer side of things is just as exciting, though its less easy to predict.

Fu interjected: Shoes! Why should we all search for a pair that fits? The panels audience laughed, breaking into spontaneous, knowing applause.

The same goes for that ever-elusive pair of jeans that fit, Fu said. What if you could get scanned for the perfect pair?

In 10 years, all of the jean shops will go to the museum, she said. And people will think, Oh my God, I cant believe you used to buy jeans that way.

The possibilities for 3D printing are almost endless. You go from life-saving to lifestyle, she said. Thats the evolution.

Doesnt that sound a lot like hype?

I believe that advanced manucturing is coming, on-demand manucturing is coming, and its going to be a very significant 21st century advancement, Fu said. I dont think whats happening is hype. Its basically 15 years worth of overnight success.

Andrew NuscaAndrew Nusca is the editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor at ZDNet. He has written for New York, Mens Vogue, Popular Mechanics, and Money. He is based in New York.

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