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Inside3DP Exclusive Interview with Terry Wohlers

on Aug 31 2014 , 10:21:49

Terry Wohlers is a long time consultant to the 3D printing industry. From 1989 to 1993, he did groundbreaking work with a leading hearing aid company for example, consulted for many multinationals for over 27 years and is often interviewed by media and investors trying to understand 3D printing.

Additionally the Wohlers Report is the industry ‘bible’ that annually updates everyone on the growth of the industry and new developments. I caught up with Terry briefly by phone in order to ask him how 3D printing was doing, what some major misconceptions were and what some growth areas are. (Disclosure: I’ve written for the Wohlers Report three times).

Joris Peels: How is the 3D printing market doing? 

Terry Wohlers: In one word, strong. We’re seeing growth in the aerospace, medical/dental, and some consumer businesses. Across the board the industry is doing very well. Over the past three years, growth has averaged 32.3%, with 34.9% growth in 2013.

Joris Peels: How is the sale of consumer 3D printed products doing? 

Terry Wohlers: We’re seeing good growth in this market segment as well from dedicated platforms such as Shapeways and online storefronts. All along, we’ve thought that some of the most significant growth would be from online platforms selling 3D printed products to consumers. We think that many more of these platforms will emerge, hundreds, and other companies will join this market. Amazon introduced a Shapeways-like offering a few weeks ago.

Joris Peels: And desktop 3D printing? 

Terry Wohlers: We’re seeing growth here too, although we don’t believe that every desktop will be home to a 3D printer. At the moment, desktop 3D printers are limited to engineers, geeks (and I am one of them), and hobbyists.

We’re also are seeing a lot of sales of desktop 3D printers to educational institutions and companies. We foresee a lot of growth there as well, and a growing opportunity. Previously a university might buy one or two industrial 3D printers. Today, we’re seeing entire labs at universities equipped with desktop systems. They are being used for hands on learning in a way that we have not seen in the past. Many companies are also buying them.

Joris Peels: There’s a lot of talk right now about using metal 3D printing in industry. From personal experience, I know that this is very complicated with a lot of dependencies. 

Terry Wohlers: We see a lot of promise in the near term for the use of metals in industry. However, it’s much more involved compared to building polymer parts. These systems are not turn-key, although the same could be said about polymer-based printers. Companies really have to understand the requirements of the parts.

They must also understand the capabilities of the machines and the ancillary equipment required. They will need to develop skills and know-how associated with preparing the and finishing the parts. In producing aerospace parts, we list nine distinct steps required to manufacture parts for aerospace applications.

The first two are 1) data generation and 2)  building the parts. The remaining steps involve postprocessing, and most people don’t initially know this. The media often creates the illusion that you push a button and out pops a shiny part.

It’s important to understand the requirements surrounding stress relief, removing the parts from the build plate, removing the supports/anchors, thermal processing, surface treatment, CNC machining, and other possible steps. Implementing metal 3D printing in a company is often more difficult and expensive than anticipated.

Joris Peels: So it will take time for these processes to become industrialized? 

Terry Wohlers: Yes it will. Even so, we are seeing companies move seriously into manufacturing with 3D printing. Some examples have been around for many years, such as the manufacture of 90% of all custom-fit hearing aids shells  being produced by 3D printing. More than 20,000 dental copings are 3D printed every day of the week. And, over 90,000 3D printed acetabular cups (hip implants) have been produced to date.  It is taking time, but these are very serious and interesting applications of 3D printing.

Joris Peels: What are some common misconceptions about 3D printing that you are seeing?

Terry Wohlers: One of the most common is that you can make anything, but that’s not the case. What if you have holes or internal channels that are so small that you cannot remove support material?

Or, walls that are paper thin and can’t be 3D printed? Also, I also strongly disagree with the assertion that “everyone will own a 3D printer.” I once had a conversation with an executive who worked for a company that sold photo printers. Largely, they are not the success that they had anticipated because people do not want to mess with printing images.

The complexities of operating a 3D printer is an order of magnitude more involved. You have to mess with 3D models, support structures, part orientation, materials, material, removal of supports, and clean up. Most consumers will buy products from service organizations. And, most of these parts will be produced on industrial-grade machines by professionals. . Most consumer won’t go through the trouble of owning and operating a general-purpose 3D printer.

Joris Peels: What about the 3D printer and  the comparison with the personal computer? 

Terry Wohlers: I think the comparison is a dangerous one to make. Professor Ian Campbell of Loughborough University pointed out that before the PC, people would write, calculate, communicate, present, and organize and store images.

What do people do today with PCs? They write, calculate, communicate, present, and organize and store images but now in a streamlined, digital way. Do most people have design skills? Are they product developers? Some will develop the necessary interest and talent, just as some do digital design on the web, but most will not.

Joris Peels is a heavyweight 3D printing industry commentator who doesn’t shy away from discussions and is never short on educated, animated opinions. Joris blogs about 3D printing at VoxelFab and works as a consultant in the 3D printing industry. He previously worked for Shapeways and i.materialise and as a developer of Origo, a 3D printer for kids.

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