Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is sometimes referred to, was
thrust into the view of the tech-savvy public and big industry around 2009 when related patents expired. That year saw the introduction of the first-ever retail consumer-focused 3D printer, named the RepRap³, with much hype around its revolutionary potential.
In the wake of these happenings, and the promised disruption of industries
like logistics, warehousing, and manufacturing. Many were drawn into the
resulting whirlpool of anticipation, “the factory in every home,” read one headline.
These gross overestimations, and possibly a Fear Of Missing Out, led to
explosive growth in the sector. The industry saw revenue grow to over US $2 billion from 2009 to 2014 — a noteworthy climb from below US $1 billion.
The euphoria of the pioneers and early adopters was not to last forever; the
industry’s growth began to slow.
Braking force was applied to the industry’s speculative growth by two main
factors. The first was that home 3D printers, though recreationally functional and educational, did not produce many things of practical value. The second was that industrially the use of Additive Manufacturing was limited to the printing of plastic prototypes.
Fortunately for stakeholders, the industry did not grind to a complete halt.
With the barriers to mass adoption in mind, it was back to the drawing board for some aspects of the new industrial push.
Fast forward to 2017 when a light began to shine in the seemingly endless
tunnel. According to a report from Wohlers Associates, the Additive Manufacturing sector is expected to grow its revenue to US $15.8 billion next year. Further, Wohlers forecasts that growth pattern to continue well into 2024, with revenue expected to reach US $35.6 billion that year.
Why The Sudden Upswing?
As touched on before, the industry (at least from the surface of it) was
held back by two main problems. These two problems are generally accepted as having stemmed from the same root.
The “root” being a lack of suitable materials for 3D printing. Before 2017
and 2018, plastic had the alpha position as a useable material for 3D printing at 88%. However, due to advances in technologies Binder
Jet 3D printing and SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), that has now declined to 65%.
Backed by new innovations, the world of Additive Manufacturing is once again on a positively disruptive trajectory. Along with the already promised
reduction of manufacturing costs and the need for logistical assistance.
Additive Manufacturing has started making waves in the field of medical
Boasting a wide range of potential applications in this sphere. 3D printing
has been used to create lifelike examples for surgeons to practice delicate
procedures. The effective use of such an innovation could see a reduction in
the need for cadavers in medical studies.
Liberland Press got in touch with Paul Sieradzki, co-founder of R3
Printing and threw some questions his way about his views on the 3D
printing industry in its current state and what the future might hold, as well
as his work with through his R3 Printing imprint. He shared the following
insights with us:
Can you tell us what sets R3 Printing apart from others in the
Additive Manufacturing (aka 3D Printing) industry?
The “elevator pitch” is that R3 Printing makes enterprise-grade additive
manufacturing (AM) products designed for businesses that offer 3D
printing services as a sole or primary means of revenue. These entities are
usually referred to as “on-demand manufacturing businesses” (ODMs).
What sets us apart from our competitors is that we’re laser-focused on ODMs as our customers, while our competitors are busy also trying to make their products applicable to “end-user” customers like engineers or architects that use 3D printers as business tools. The result is that our products are more profitable to operate. We design our products like Cisco or Dell would design hardware for data centers, whereas using our competitors’ products is like trying to run that same datacenter using a bunch of iMacs. Going with R3 Printing means you’ll get a product that’s purpose-built and profitable for your business.
What inspired your decision to pursue R3 Printing as a business
instead of a hobby?
R3 Printing was a business from day one. That comes straight from my
childhood dream of becoming an inventor and bringing my inventions to the world in the form of a product that people want to buy. When I was little, I was always trying to “invent” things, and then I’d pitch them to my parents, who sometimes would “buy” them from me as a form of encouragement/allowance money. But beyond gadget-like widgets, I always struggled to find an area to innovate in that would make a real difference in people’s lives, so I started out in college on the pre-med track. Then the desktop 3D printing “revolution” started to happen, and I pitched my co-founder Dan on buying a 3D printer with what little money we had and selling 3D printing services to help offset the cost. We just thought it was cool, and hypothesized that there was some profit to be made. When it turned out that there was significant demand for our 3D printing services, but Dan and I were struggling to maintain a healthy profit margin at a price we believed was fair, we pivoted to hardware design and started building products instead of providing a service.
What range of AM technology does R3 Printing offer?
At this time, we’re focusing on extrusion-based technology. We’re taking a
contrarian stance here because while many believe that the high-resolution
capabilities of laser-based AM technology mean that extrusion-based technology is passé, we see a whole world of untapped potential. Extrusion-based 3D printing technology still hasn’t been beaten on print size and cost of materials, and there’s additional validation with companies like Desktop Metal that prove that innovating in the extrusion-based space still has a long way to go if you can push the envelope far enough, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
From where the industry stands now, do you also believe that AM
could completely replace certain mass production processes?
I definitely think it’ll replace mass-production processes in specific
product categories, but not as a whole. While companies like R3 Printing
work on getting 3D-printed products closer to the price point of mass-produced counterparts, for objects with standard geometry that are produced by the tens of millions, even a penny of cost difference becomes unacceptable as the volume passes that kind of threshold. So while I definitely believe that most of the objects in our lives that are “touch points” (ex. ergonomic mice, soles of shoes, handlebar grips, etc.) will be converted to AM as a primary means of manufacturing, you won’t be reading about the death of injection molding anytime soon.
In regards to economic benefits, how could a healthy dose of AM be
advantageous to the day-to-day business of a small state like Liberland?
You’re asking an entrepreneur about this, so I’m of course going to think
about it from a business point of view. Businesses need to produce an economic good, and that could come in the form of either a product or a service. I think there’s lots of potential for any small state to become a significant exporter of 3D-printed products (so, providing 3D printing / on-demand manufacturing services). Just like in the US, where data centers are located where they are for a combination of strategic reasons, any small state has the potential to position itself similarly.
What constraints would a small state like Liberland have to work
around to ensure a profitable and sustainable additive manufacturing (AM) industry?
All things being equal, I think the most significant constraints for any
small state (or small business, for that matter) quickly become logistical.
Sure, you need to build up your additive manufacturing capabilities by
purchasing and setting up a large fleet of R3 Printer units, but that’s a
starting cost that can be amortized over time. Assuming that importing printing materials (ex. spools or pellets of plastic) isn’t an issue, then your biggest concern becomes export: how can Liberland (or again, any small business) get its products to their destination in a way that can outcompete a bigger state (or competing incumbent business) that would otherwise be better off doing it “in-house”?
As the industry has grown, we’ve seen the emergence of technologies
like Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and companies like Desktop Metal, that are unlocking the ability to print in various metals. Could you briefly explain how they work?
Sure. First, a quick recap on how 3D printing works in general: the goal is
to recreate a three-dimensional object by stacking a series of two-dimensional shapes. As an example, you can think of a three-dimensional cylinder as a stack of two-dimensional circles. To be less abstract, picture a stack of pennies. The thinner you make the layers (the pennies, in this example), the more difficult it is to perceive them, and you get a more perfect-looking three-dimensional object.
Laser sintering methods (like SLS for thermoplastics and DMLS for metals)
rely on a bed of powdered material and a laser to selectively fuse it together. So back to the cylinder analogy, in an SLS or DMLS machine you’d see the laser sinter a circle in the middle of the powder bed, an “arm” to bring over a fresh layer of powder material to the bed, another circle get sintered, another layer of fresh powder, again and again until the process is complete. When the process is finished, you have this cube of powder and your finished object somewhere inside. You then need to fish it out, blow off any unsintered powder, and ideally recycle as much of the unsintered powder as you can without contaminating it.
Desktop Metal is the name of a company, not a technology (I don’t think
they’ve come up with a clever name for their technology, to my knowledge). But it’s an exciting idea: instead of using expensive lasers to melt powdered metal (which is also costly, not to mention unhealthy to be exposed to), what if you have a metal powder-infused thermoplastic filament that you print using an extrusion-based 3D printer that’s more affordable and versatile? Then, once you’re done printing, you can “bake” the object in a furnace to burn off the thermoplastic that bound the metal powder together, and you have a near-solid metal object at a vastly reduced price point. It’s fascinating, and something we plan on experimenting with for our product line as well since R3 Printer is perfectly capable of printing these metal-infused filaments.
Could such additive manufacturing methods help with the building and
upkeep of Liberland’s infrastructure?
Absolutely. Even having thermoplastic-only AM capabilities is a significant
advantage given how far materials science has advanced in the past few years.
If so, which would be the more cost-effective route to take?
I think that would depend on your goal. If you’re sticking to traditional
methods of construction (think: prefabricated roof structures and wall
structures that can be quickly bolted together to form a house), then AM won’t be a part of the manufacturing process because the workflow is so established and you can slap things together rather quickly. But if you’re interested in the next generation of housing structures and office structures where there’s more openness, more natural lighting, optimization for energy efficiency, then AM opens those doors for you. It’s a higher brain power investment upfront, but that’s the route I personally take- let’s push the limits and see if we can make some breakthroughs.
Any plans to produce on Liberlandian soil in the future?
Right now we’re keeping everything (manufacturing, assembly, distribution, headquarters, etc.) within North America for simplicity, but we haven’t ruled anything out yet.
The use of AM in medical sciences is still experimental. How far do you see it going?
The medical side of 3D printing isn’t something I’m as close to, but from
everything I read about, I think there’s a bright future ahead. Working from
the outside of the body in, we’re already seeing 3D printing applied to things like Invisalign, an alternative to metal braces that has already changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Going more internally, I read about metal 3D printing being a superior method for replacing joints or fixing bones after severe fractures or disease. You have extremely early-stage research on 3D-printed live tissue and cartilage that can change the lives of people with both internal and external soft-tissue damage alike. I have an elbow injury that prevents my left arm from straightening out all the way; I’m missing about 15 degrees of motion. I can totally see myself going in for surgery where I’ll come out the other end with a custom, 3D-printed titanium elbow to replace my damaged joint, complete with 3D-printed cartilage and connective tissue to make it a drop-in replacement. No immunosuppressants or silicone, just some pain meds and ibuprofen to solve what right now is a pretty major surgery that I wouldn’t take the risk on.
Nearer-term, I think the technology that we’re developing at R3 Printing can impact the medical field too. There was a fascinating study a few years ago that linked ultrasonic vibrations with accelerated bone healing. Imagine if you break your wrist or ankle, and instead of having a smelly plaster cast for a while, you get scanned at the hospital, and an R3 Printer unit cranks out a plastic cast that’s just as strong, but mesh-like and breathable. You click on an ultrasonic transducer that you can recharge overnight, and instead of 4-8 weeksto fix that broken ankle, you’re slashing that time in half and living more comfortably at that. If there’s anyone out there that’s looking to partner with us for that kind of research, we’d be thrilled to work with them.
How could Liberland get position itself as a future leader in this
particular bracket of 3D printing?
Invest heavily in building out an infrastructure for AM capabilities and
become the bleeding edge for researching novel applications for 3D printing. A lot of people see the headline that additive manufacturing is a $16Bn industry in 2019 and think that it’s a mature industry, but we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the ways the technology can be applied. I think the best way forward would be to get a whole bunch of 3D printers, start asking “what if” and “why not” and the innovation will follow.