IN CONTRAST to the clutter and noise that characterises most factories, a small plant in Minneapolis feels unnaturally ordered and quiet. It contains neat rows of machines resembling large refrigerators. The plant, run by Stratasys, is using 3D printing, or hi -tech "additive" manufacturing. Each machine contains an internal chamber in which layers of powder are being fused using lasers to create complicated parts that end up in anything from boat seats to optical instruments. The machines are controlled by computer codes defining the shapes of the items to be made.
Probably the biggest cheerleader for the sector is Abe Reichental, an Israeli-American who is CEO of 3D Systems, which, with Stratasys, is one of the world's two biggest producers of 3D printing machines. He says the technology can contribute to the "democratisation of manufacturing" by lowering the barriers between design and production. "3D printing can provide the garage entrepreneur with the same productive capabilities as the large corporation," he says. Another key attribute is that the technology makes it possible to produce "one-off" or highly personalised parts more easily than with other methods.
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric (GE), is similarly enthusiastic: "I think it's going to be big, I really do." The technology's biggest effect, Immelt says, will include "shortening cycle times" between designing products and making them. That could help manufacturers in the rich world compensate for higher wage costs compared with those in emerging economies. GE is using 3D printing to make prototype components for testing in its divisions that produce domestic appliances and aerospace engines. Other big companies trying out the technology include Mattel, Medtronic, Boeing and Daimler.
Other big users are in the medical equipment sector, where often items such as parts for orthopaedic implants or hearing aids need to be made on a one-off basis to fit the physiology of individuals.
So far, however, 3D printing has yet to find much application in routine parts production, where items are made in batch runs counted in tens of thousands or even millions, and where the technology is normally too expensive compared with procedures such as metal cutting or plastics injection moulding.
But Scott Crump, CEO of Stratasys, sees 3D printing as "part of a spectrum" of manufacturing technologies that are creating new opportunities. These include novel ways to produce the advanced software required to define shapes of products, together with new versions of more conventional cutting tools. Viewed in this way, 3D printing is the latest in a broad range of additive technologies in manufacturing - where materials are fused or bonded - as opposed to making parts by conventional "subtractive" machining, where metal or plastic is cut away from a solid mass.
A third broad type of manufacturing technology involves forming processes where the material is shaped through means such as moulding in a so-called static process. In this area of technology, the material's mass and volume stay unaltered while its shape changes.
As well as selling 3D printing machines, Stratasys operates factories to use the technology to make parts for customers. It recently announced a merger with Objet, an Israeli maker of 3D printing systems, to create a larger group.
3D printing is still a fairly small sector. According to Terry Wohlers, an independent US consultant, sales of 3D printing equipment last year came to about $500m, less than 1% of the comparable sales of conventional machine tools. Wohlers estimates that the total revenues of the 3D printing industry, including sales of equipment and materials together with contracting revenue by 3D printing services businesses, added up to just $1,7bn last year.
However, he says these raw numbers fail to provide a true picture of the sector's significance. In the field of prototype parts production, says Wohlers, the value of the technology is worth "billions of dollars a year" to companies that find the technology helpful to speeding up product development.
Joe Hogan, CEO of ABB, the Swiss-Swedish engineering group, says: "3D printing means it's possible to go from concept to reality (in making one-off parts) in just a few hours."
In the medical equipment industry, hearing-aid makers such as Starkey of the US, Widex of Denmark and Phonak of Switzerland are big users of 3D printing techniques. In the orthopaedic implant sector, big groups such as Stryker, a leading US maker of artificial joints such as hips, is also using the process, while another leader in this application is Adler Ortho, a much smaller Italian specialist business.
Over the next few years, the biggest optimists in the sector believe applications of the technology will broaden out to make it possible to use the process for making parts in large production runs. That could especially be the case for small, complex shapes where the economic advantages of 3D printing are more established than for big, simple ones.
Hans Langer, CEO of Eos, a Munich-based company making 3D printers, says the new processes should not be regarded as mere substitutes for current techniques but as paving the way to make new types of factory items that would be close to impossible to create with current techniques: "We now have a way to make items that are lighter, use materials more economically and behave differently to products made today. 3D printing could lead to a completely new way to approach manufacturing."
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited