In the first of his comment pieces on 3D printing issues and challenges, Jeremy Pullin delves into the murky waters of hiked up raw material costs by 3D printer manufacturers and what it’s doing to the industry
Would you buy a car if you could only fill it with petrol or diesel sold by the car manufacturer? How about a toaster with bread that can only be purchased from the toaster manufacturer?
These may seem like silly questions but it is exactly what 3D printer manufacturers are doing by selling materials for use in only their machines.
The reason why this has been allowed to happen is not because of the commercial greed of 3D printer manufacturers but rather as an undesirable leftover from 3D printing’s early years.
To put it simply, manufacturers had to supply materials for their machines because nobody else was doing it and, to be honest, the volumes were simply too small to interest the established material supply companies.
3D printing is no longer a babe in arms but rather a young teenager and judging by the amount of court cases and attempts by at least one company to patent ideas allegedly developed by the open source community, it’s a stroppy one at that.
There are also so many near identical machines being released now that each new printer calling for funding on Kickstarter stands out about as much as a fart in a Jacuzzi.
A good way to predict what will happen to current and indeed new technologies is to look at what has happened to the old ones such as stereolithography (SLA).
By the way, it’s fine to call stereolithography old. I mean, the first 3D printed part using this process by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was produced in the same year that the Austin Metro was Britain’s top selling car, seat belts became compulsory and the first CD was sold in the UK.
As SLA continues to be a popular technology, the number of material companies and their product offerings continues to grow. For instance, Dutch materials sciences company DSM has been selling third party resins for quite some time.
So it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the same will happen with other 3D printing/additive manufacturing technologies. But some manufacturers will do their utmost to resist the threat to their high margin material revenue streams.
We’ve seen it all before of course with manufacturers stating that the use of third party materials on their machines means that the warranties will no longer be honoured.
By the magic of devious small print they get away with this but I can’t help thinking that they are making a big mistake.
These manufacturers need to deem third party materials as a sales opportunity rather than forcing their customers to purchase materials with mark ups that would make drug barons blush with embarrassment.
In other markets, both industrial and consumer, manufacturers put a great deal of time and trouble into ensuring that their products can run with commonly sourced consumables. The automotive industry is a good example.
Aside from the fuel example I started with, car manufacturers don’t fit their cars with unique sized wheels forcing users to only purchase tyres from them. Instead, industry standard sized wheels mean that industry sized tyres can be fitted.
A quick look around at virtually all 3D printing websites will show that this is certainly not the case for most machines. I say virtually because the obvious exception is the RepRap style machines which are almost entirely fabricated out of proprietary parts.
Raw material prices have a detrimental effect not just on cost of ownership but in inhibiting wider scale adoption of the technology both through raising the bar of affordability and unfavourably skewing the relative costs between additive and conventional manufacturing.
Simply put, when parts are cheaper to produce additively than conventionally surely it makes sense to make more use of that process. But high material costs often mean that organisations that have additive equipment are using it less than they otherwise would do.
Universities and colleges provide compelling evidence of this problem. I have spoken to so many over the years who reveal that equipment is standing idle because they can’t afford to run it.
This of course means that the whole opportunity to extol the virtues of additive manufacturing to their students is completely lost. It also means that the funds used to purchase this equipment have largely been wasted.
This scenario obviously won’t go down well with the funding organisations and when they visit the university or college, the machines are often screened from view with offerings from the art departments.
Whole groups of funders are under the impression that all university engineering departments consist of walkways permanently lined with painted disposable barbecue cutlery, brightly coloured pipe cleaners and moody black and white photographs.
The volumes and indeed variety of raw materials being sold are at a level where additional material suppliers are willing to enter the market, whether it be for powders, resins, filaments or just about anything else.
Some have already entered but certainly not for all systems yet. Compatibility is a good thing. I’m sure users would love to be able to take a half finished spool from their Cube and stick it on their Makerbot and vice versa. But, most of all, people want to pay less for their materials which in turn will lead to more machines sales and more machine usage.
For this to become reality the materials market needs to be a competitive one. Blocking of this by machine manufacturers is both short sighted and ultimately counterproductive.
This is of course very different to the way that machines are being developed in the open source community, so perhaps the big boys should be emulating the little boys and making compatibility of consumables a selling point rather than deliberately avoiding it.
Jeremy Pullin is the rapid manufacturing manager for Renishaw, having set up and now in charge of its pioneering Rapid Manufacturing Centre. He can be found tweeting as @jezpullin
Jeremy Pullin on the effect of high raw material costs on the 3D printing industry