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How Is 3D Printing Disrupting Manufacturing? A Chat With The CEO Of Formlabs

Michael Holman, Ph.D., Vice President, Research & Xiao Zhong, Ph.D., Analyst
August 11, 2020

In his keynote speech at last year's Digital Factory Conference, Max Lobovsky, CEO of Formlabs, made an analogy between computers and 3D printers, arguing that the 3D printing industry will follow a similar trend as the computer industry – moving from the expensive and exclusive to the low-cost and accessible. We recently chatted with Max about how 3D printing is disrupting the manufacturing industry by offering technology accessibility, part consolidation, and product customization.

What Max Lobovsky, CEO of Formlabs said:

Max argued that more than 1 billion people will use 3D printing five years from now, with desktop professional 3D printers leading this growth in large-scale adoption. 3D printing will not completely replace traditional manufacturing methods in the future – it will always be economically challenging to 3D print low-cost, high-volume products – but it will increasingly take market share from the traditional manufacturing market, as well as creating new opportunities. In the future, the manufacturing toolbox will have 3D printing as well as many traditional tools that are augmented by digital technologies.

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What lux research thinks:

While the argument of 1 billion 3D printing users in five years is much too aggressive, even under a pretty loose definition of "users," 3D printing does have the potential to disrupt several aspects of manufacturing:

  • Technology accessibility: The emergence of desktop professional printers is making manufacturing more office-friendly and accessible while still maintaining industrial quality – though not all products can be printed using a desktop professional printer. Companies like Formlabs and Desktop Metal are leading this effort.

  • Part consolidation: Part consolidation is perhaps 3D printing's most important value proposition. Combined with software tools like generative design, 3D printing can produce components with much fewer parts, and often using less raw material, while keeping or even enhancing desired performance and functionality.

  • Product customization: As we pointed out in our recent report, the pressure for product diversity and personalization, as well as the low supply chain efficiency, has driven manufacturers to look for new, alternative manufacturing methods. As one example, 3D printing's design flexibility is enabling product customization in sectors like footwear.

Still using the computer industry as an example, expensive and cumbersome mainframe computers (otherwise known as "big iron") were the only options in the 1960s, and they were only adopted by some large companies. The inflection point happened in the 1980s as personal computers (PCs) became widely accessible. While 3D printing has been passing out of the "mainframe stage," it is still used only in select cases with limited production volume, even as use case space is expanding and feasible production volume is increasing. The key metric behind the scenes is throughput per dollar – the number of parts (assuming the same design) per hour that can be produced for a given investment in a 3D printer – which is driven up by innovations in 3D printing materials, printers, and software. Looking forward, 3D printing will indeed coexist with (rather than replace) other manufacturing tools. While 3D printers may never be as widespread as PCs among average consumers, they are already past an inflection point among professional users, where adoption for manufacturing uses will grow rapidly. Those interested should consider how widespread accessibility of flexible manufacturing tools like 3D printing will change manufacturing paradigms for their industry and look to engage in leading ecosystems like Formlabs' to capitalize.