Note: This is the fifth of a five-part "best of"series covering trends, material/process advances and applications in electrical and electronics, barrier packaging, medical, bioplastics and 3-D printing.

Although it's in its plastics industry end-use product infancy, 3-D printing is a disruptive, technology-driven innovation that will change the face of manufacturing in the coming years, provided additional plastic material development takes place. 3-D printing technology will change manufacturing by:

  • Minimizing or requiring no assembly
  • Making product variety and quantity free
  • Reducing with CAD files the skill in manufacturing
  • Lead time reduction or elimination
  • Design requirements being limited by one's imagination
  • In many cases portable and compact technology
  • Product complexity is free
  • Increased material choices

In 3-D printing, products are built layer by layer, versus the use of a mold or machining from a larger material block. It dramatically decreases time from design to manufacturing, transfers power to designers, and generates products with radically new forms with less waste and at a much lower cost compared to manufacturing as we perceive it today.

The growth of 3-D printing plastic materials is entering an important 3-5-year development phase where it is evolving from highly publicized prototypes and molds/tooling to end use industrial and consumer products.

Plastics Institute of America
3-D printing global market penetration.

As a starting point in 3-D printing, it's important to have a solid understanding of how a 3-D printing company makes money, which can differ greatly from one company to another.

For example, 3D Systems and Stratasys primarily operate a Gillette-like, razor-and-blades model, where 3-D printer sales fuel the usage and subsequent sale of higher-margin materials over a printer's lifetime. Proto Labs, on the other hand, is a 3-D printing and quick-turnaround manufacturing service provider that lets customers get 3-D-printed and manufactured parts made on their behalf.

While both business models can capitalize on 3-D printing's growth, they operate with completely different cost structures that drive profitability.

Next, it's worthwhile to estimate a 3-D printing company's market opportunity. One way to approach it is from the perspective of a business's ability to target end use applications. As a general rule, the more end uses on which a 3-D printing company can focus, the greater its overall market opportunity.

From this perspective, 3D Systems' market opportunity is larger than Stratasys' model. Basically 3D Systems has seven distinct 3-D printing technologies in its portfolio to offer customers, including the ability to 3-D print in metal materials where manufactured products are starting to dominate due to a denser metal's ability to have stronger finished mechanical properties. Stratasys only offers three technologies, all of them plastic-based with lower finished mechanical property performance as compared to as injection molded parts.

Plastics certainly are the lighter-weight alternative, but improved mechanical performance grades need to be developed. As more global plastics raw material suppliers see 3-D printing as an effective market development tool, plastics property improvement will improve.

For a 3-D printing service provider like Proto Labs, its opportunity is directly correlated to the types of technology it adopts and the number of materials it offers customers. Proto Labs is an innovative market leader in this regard, and therefore an excellent starting point for plastics raw material suppliers, manufacturers and end users

In order for a 3-D printing company to sustain a long-term competitive advantage in the marketplace, it has to be differentiated, which can take on many forms. It could be an innovative technology, business model, process, specialization or even a high barrier to entry.

Carbon's Continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) 3-D printing process.

One distinctive differentiated example in this regard is Carbon's recently introduced M1 printer, which claims to be anywhere from 25 to 100 times faster than anything before it. Moreover, the M1 can only be acquired through an industry-first subscription model, which requires a three-year, $40,000-per-year minimum commitment.

For this price, users get an internet-connected 3-D printer — another industry first that gets better over time through over-the-internet updates, in similar fashion to how Tesla Motors releases software updates for its electric vehicles. This is also a cost-effective, long-term service maintenance strategy for Carbon.

The M1 works by plunging a flat build plate into a liquid bath of resin. An ultraviolet LED projector below then flashes a two-dimensional image — a single layer of a 3-D object — through the bath's translucent container bottom and onto the plate. Ultraviolet light causes the resin to harden at the build plate, which rises up as a continuous process deposits more material onto the growing object. Carbon calls this the continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) process.

The most recent investors in Carbon include GE, BMW Group, Nikon and the JSR Corporation. They have invested more than $81 million to extend the company's Series C funding, bringing total outside investment in Carbon to date to $222 million so far. Carbon approached the challenge, and potential, of 3-D printing from a different perspective. With its M1 and CLIP technologies, Carbon has introduced a solution that will truly revolutionize manufacturing.

Regular 3-D printers that lay down hot plastic or sinter metal powder onto the growing shape take at least a couple of hours to do the same build. Carbon's process is already up to 100 times faster than those machines and could get up to 1,000 times faster.

Perhaps more important, investors are being wowed by the continuous process's mechanical properties.

The M1's translucent container bottom isn’t just permeable to light; it also lets oxygen in. These two ingredients allow for a new photochemistry that imparts engineering-grade properties such as uniformity throughout the material as well as strength, elasticity or vibration absorbency. These characteristics let engineers build complex objects with materials like those they could produce with plastic injection molding, bringing the 3-D printing process much closer to rapid parts production.

Carbon says its technology is already being used to make finished automotive, medical, apparel and consumer electronics parts. If you actually make a part that has the properties to be a final part, and you do it at game-changing speeds, you can actually transform manufacturing, states Joseph DeSimone, Carbon 3D's CEO and cofounder.

Delving further, it's always important in 3-D printing to continually size up your competition. The attractive growth prospects of the 3-D printing industry has invited new competition, which can undermine an incumbent 3-D printing company's competitive positioning.

In addition to Carbon, Hewlett-Packard is about to enter the 3-D printing industry this year with a homegrown technology that leverages decades of inkjet experience. HP claims its Multi Jet Fusion printer will be much faster than leading technologies on the market today as marketed by 3-D Systems and Stratasys. Since Carbon and HP are focused on the plastic segment, Stratasys faces greater competitive pressure from these entrants than 3D Systems, which has a more diversified business model outside of plastic-based 3-D printers.

HP's new industrial 3-D printer, the Jet Fusion 3-D printer has created a huge buzz in the 3-D printing world when first unveiled back in May due to some revolutionary abilities. Up to 10 times faster than competing machines and capable of cutting down production costs by up to 50 percent, the Jet Fusion could have the power to change industrial 3-D printing. It was an immediate hit with industry partners upon its release, and companies like BMW quickly adopted it for serial part production.

But the Jet Fusion's quirkiest characteristic has only just been revealed by HP's head of 3D printing Stephen Nigro. About half of all the plastic components and panels used on the two Jet Fusion 3-D printer models, the Jet Fusion 3200 and the Jet Fusion 4200, were actually 3-D printed using that same technology. Any product batch consisting of fewer than 55,000 pieces can actually be cheaper to produce through 3-D printing than through injection molding.

When it comes to a 3-D printer that costs about $130,000, however, the quality of the machine is understandably paramount. In that respect, HP's decision to 3-D print a significant part of the printer's components underlines just how reliable and high quality their technology actually is and how cost-effective.

Hewlett Packard
Multijet fusion 3-D printer.

Finally, it's important to factor in an understanding of the risks involved in 3-D printing. Much like competitive threats, risks that affect one 3-D printing company may not apply to another. At the same time, there are risks that affect the 3-D printing industry in general.

One such global risk is the ongoing slowdown in professional and industrial demand that began in early 2015, and has affected virtually every company that focuses on the 3-D printing market place. Most recently, in the second quarter of 2016, 3D Systems' printer sales fell 30 percent year over year, while Stratasys' printer sales fell 19 percent.

Another global risk is how a large portion of the 3-D printing's expected growth trajectory is based on the technology's continued expansion into manufacturing uses. Although 3-D printing offers promise for use in manufacturing, it remains a largely unproven technology in this realm.

As 3-D printing's adoption in manufacturing use gains traction, it will change the growth outlook across all industry.