3D printing pioneers weigh in on the future: “It’s going to integrate into society”

Dave Perell is a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and, this fall, he noticed something completely new: Students showed up at his campus laboratory with previous 3D printing experience.

“It’s going to integrate into society,” Perell said. “It’s already integrating, and we’re going to continue to see that happen.”

Perell spoke on a panel with Stratasys CIO Scott Crump and 3D System CTO Chuck Hull at the Inside 3D Printing conference in San Jose. Each of them contributed to the very first 3D printers in the 1980s and each of them had similar startup stories, from early technical failures to having a difficult time finding funding.

Carl Deckard with an early 3D printer. Photo courtesy of UT-Austin.

Carl Deckard with an early 3D printer. Photo courtesy of UT-Austin.

The earliest machines were hulking things, built after Crump, Hull and Perell’s colleague Carl Deckard recognized a weakness in the manufacturing cycles of the time. Hull, for example, was working with UV-curable materials, and wondered if a similar system could be applied to 3D objects. At the time, prototypes were made with plastic injection molding machines. The process was slow, and involved many weeks of waiting for each new iteration of a prototype. He tinkered and tinkered until he had a working machine and then quickly rushed to commercialize it.

Crump had a similar problem. He spent years perfecting parts, only to find the industry he was building them for had moved on by then.

Hull said the automative industry was one of the earliest embracers of 3D printing. The car companies were demanding, which Hull said pushed 3D Systems to build a better printer. Crump said Stratasys found its earliest applications among automotive, aerospace and medical companies before expanding into education.

Stratasys and 3D Systems are the major manufacturers of professional-grade 3D printers, but in recent years have expanded into consumer devices. Stratasys acquired Makerbot, which makes the popular Replicator line, while 3D Systems manufactures its own line of low-price printers.

“What I see happening in the future is the quality and the speed of the low cost printers continue to improve, … giving the high cost printers a run for their money,” Perell said. “It’s going to drive a number of things.”

Crump said elements like low cost, ease of use, connectivity, reliability and safety will continue to drive future development of 3D printers. And, already, they are impacting consumers on a daily basis. Beyond the prosumer using a 3D printer in their own home, there are more and more products prototyped and manufactured with them.

“One of the things that I think is amazing that you may not realize is that between when you wake up [and by] noon, you’re impacted by about probably 15 different devices that were developed and designed, outputted and prototyped with a 3D printer,” Crump said.