Johnny Ryan speaks to Scott Crump, CEO of Stratasys

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Where do you see the future of the industry (in terms of growth, application, and impact over the next 5, 10 and 15 years)?

I think we’ll see 3D printer prices continue to drop both in the systems for commercial use as well as the hobbyist units in which the users assemble the system themselves. And we’ll see 3D printers be much more geared for mainstream use by consumers than they are today.

HP’s presence in the 3D printer market will have a powerful impact.  I see them driving awareness and sales and helping grow the market dramatically over the next 5 to 10 years.

HP had success selling specialized 2D printers in the MCAD (mechanical computer aided design) and architectural markets. They entered the market in the early 80s, when annual sales of wide format printers totaled only in the thousands. They advanced the technology and quickly became the leader, expanding the printer market to over 100,000 units annually. They currently have about 70% of the market share.

Globally, over 2.6 million commercial 3D CAD seats and 3 million educational 3D CAD seats exist, while only 38,000 3D printer and 3D production systems exist. So you can see the market is under-saturated, and there’s huge opportunity for 3D printers and 3D production systems.

There’s a trend among gamers to have custom video game characters brought out of the virtual world and have a replica built via 3D printing. This trend will continue to drive the services that use 3D printers to create custom characters to the gamers’ order. This will aid the market expansion for 3D printers.

With 3D printer technology, more and more people are gaining access to this method of manufacturing. It’s becoming within reach of the individual inventor, which will inspire creativity and prompt more laypeople to pursue their new product ideas.

What is your position on the importance of desktop printing – where do you see the balance in the future between desktop and professional 3D printing? For example, do you anticipate, and at what point, that dimension printers will be a bigger business that fortus for you in the future?

Our 3D printer line, Dimension, has overtaken our Fortus high-end system line in terms of unit sales, becoming about 90% of unit sales. And 3D printer revenue is now the majority of our total system revenue. This is in large part because we have driven the cost down, making the machines affordable to a wider group.

30% of our 3D printer sales are to educational institutions. And it’s no longer just colleges buying 3D printers. The age of the students has gotten younger and younger. In 2010 we installed systems in 25 grade schools. Imagine the design skill these kids will have by the time they graduate from college!

We expect 3D printing will continue to grow in popularity both for commercial use and consumer use.

For our Fortus, high-end line, customers are no longer buying these strictly for prototyping. Increasingly, they’re being used for manufacturing applications, which is why we call them “3D production systems.” They are becoming popular as a new manufacturing method. I see enormous growth potential for these 3D production machines.

Some people describe the factory of the future as rows of these systems putting out production parts. The factories can be run cleaner, with less waste and less labor. The additive process uses only the plastic needed for a part. There’s no milling, machining, or byproducts.

By selling these systems for the production of manufacturing aids, such as jigs and fixtures, we’re tapping into a $4 billion market. By selling these systems to produce finished goods, we’re tapping into a $280 billion market.

What are the outer limits for the technology over the next decade and a half? – for example, do you see a time in the future when integrated chip fabrication at nm level will be possible as part of a printed object?

One of the more amazing applications for Stratasys FDM technology is in defense. The armed forces have had early success building UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) components that could eventually be carried by a soldier in a backpack, snapped together in the field, and launched by hand to fly surveillance missions.

Using nm (nanometer) metal particle coating, we can create a plastic-metal hybrid structure that’s 10 times stronger than the plastic alone, and it’s about 60% lighter than a purely metal structure of the same strength. To take advantage of this technology, an application being studied by the military is the creation of drone warriors that can walk and run like humans. They will be able to carry heavier loads, and they will allow humans to be removed from harm’s way.

NASA has also performed experiments in zero gravity with the goal of being able to build parts in space on demand.

What are the primary hurdles that 3D printing face technologically at the present time?

There are sales hurdles and there are technology hurdles, but both will be overcome.

The number one sales hurdle is simple lack of awareness. When compared with hundred-year-old manufacturing processes, a twenty-year-old technology is still relatively new, and many people are still unfamiliar with it. With HP’s entry to the 3D printing market, awareness is getting a shot in the arm.

Regarding overcoming technological barriers to more widespread adoption, 3D printer manufacturers will need to continue to lower the price to enable more companies and consumers to afford them and make them simpler to use, to allow non-technical people access.

3D production system manufacturers will need to continue to drive improvements in reliability and repeatability as well as introduce more materials, which will allow more companies to use these systems for making production parts.

And the most important thing CAD software makers can do is to make the software easier to use so it’s more consumer-oriented.

Can you give an example of the use of 3D printing that might be a good eye opener for readers and would help them understand the process?

Process Description: After a design engineer completes his CAD (computer aided design) file, he uploads it to the 3D printer’s preprocessing program. The program sections the design into layers or crossections – as many as hundreds of thinly sliced layers to be built. Plastic is heated and melted and advanced through a nozzle, which follows a build-path determined by the CAD data. The part is built layer by layer, from the bottom, up.

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