Mitch Free, co-founder and CEO of a digital 3D printing-based manufacturing company CloudDDM, thinks the pundits have it all wrong when it comes to 3D printing, aka additive manufacturing.

It won't be a fad powered by parents and kids making their next soap box derby racecars at the library. Or hobbyists designing their own whirly-gig models on machines in the basement.

No, it will be a commercial phenomenon.

And it's about to blow up.

Printing on Demand

From Free's vantage as a leader in the manufacturing space, industrial players will not just be looking to create prototypes with 3D printing.

The industry is about to experience "very high growth and significant change" because industrial firms will be looking for 3D printing services to function more like actual manufacturers. In part, it's because the industrial firms aren't ready to buy the 3D printers themselves.

"Manufacturers of 3D printers are dealing with a base of customers that is hesitant to purchase based on the uncertainty that comes from a quickly evolving technology," Free said.

Enter service providers who can offer on-demand 3D printing.

"Those companies who are able to offer true manufacturing capabilities for parts production, yet give customers flexibility while they prove out their own unique applications, will be the ones who come out on top," he said. "The market potential here is unprecedented."

We're a few years away from seeing this play out on a global stage, he added, and it appears that most 3D printing operations domestically aren't quite ready either. Instead, today's "service bureaus" are stuck in a business model of building non-functioning prototypes in small quantities.

For its part, Free's CloudDDM has been known to get an order for 40 end-use plastic brackets at 3:30 p.m. one day and deliver the parts to the customer by 9:30 a.m. the next.

One secret sauce ingredient to their success is a digital platform that allows customers to upload designs, choose quantities and material, and literally hit a "print" button. That action leads to as many 3D printers as necessary kicking on for CloudDDM to produce the order in time. Another secret ingredient is a partnership with UPS' Supply Chain Services unit.

This new reality dispels the notion (based in long-time fact) that 3D printing is too slow to be worthwhile on a large industrial scale (though 40 parts is hardly "large”).

Embracing 3D

And what Free says jives with some of the more recent research out there.

In a survey by PwC, nearly two-thirds of about 100 industrial manufacturers said they were using 3D printing, but nearly 85 percent of those respondents said that they were still only experimenting or doing prototyping. Deloitte’s 2015 report on 3D printing didn’t see any change to this through this year.

“In the near term, however, we expect some parts manufacturers to embrace a 3D printing business model, where customers are given the option of downloading an approved file, printing a legal and authenticated part, and installing the part without violating copyright or warranty provisions,” the authors wrote.

Forecasts are that this will change: market research firm Canalys came out with a forecast in the spring calling for a worldwide 3D printing market worth $5.2 billion by year's end — and worth $20.2 billion by 2019. 

That growth will come from somewhere. The Canalys authors pointed to improved printer technology, lower costs, more vendors entering the market and investments by commercial manufacturers — the likes of GE, Boeing and BMW.

The only difference between what Canalys said and Free's story is the consumer angle.

The former sees consumer segment growth keeping pace with the enterprise uses. That's good news for soapbox derby builders and hobbyists everywhere.

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Title image by André Robillard.