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After the 3D boom
By David Eldridge
Posted 1 April 2014

Our 3D printing feature on pages 14-17 of this issue shows a sector of contrasts. The bubbling consumer market enjoys the showbiz of the CES 2014 fair in Las Vegas, where 3D Systems paraded singer will.i.am as its new chief creative officer; meanwhile, work progresses in Europe on the serious business of standardisation in additive manufacturing (the term preferred by companies in the industrial part of the market).

The Gartner Hype Cycle suggests 3D printing is at the “peak of inflated expectations”. Indeed, some recent articles on US tech blogs have focused on failures in consumer 3D printing, suggesting that disillusionment – the next part of the Gartner curve – has already started.

At European Plastics News, we focus mainly on the various additive manufacturing technologies as they are applied in industrial settings. It’s an interesting development that some companies that are well established in the plastics manufacturing sector have taken a step in 3D printing. Röchling has started an SLS service, while injection moulding machinery maker Arburg launched its Freeformer technology to great fanfare at K 2013. Are these companies being savvy in spotting new opportunities or are they taking an unnecessary risk?

Looking again at the Gartner curve shows that after the peak is passed, disillusionment sets in, but then the once-hyped technology heads up again into a more sustained period of productivity. Of course, the difficulty is knowing in which areas future productivity will reside. One area is likely to be small volume production, or “midi manufacture” as it is termed in our article on 3D printed moulds for short-run injection moulding (pages 14-15).

While the 3D printing sector goes through its current fast growth phase, at least the market excitement is encouraging invention, new technology and new solutions to old manufacturing problems. Not all of the (sometimes crazy) ideas will survive, but we should not dismiss the consumer 3D printing boom. We just need to look past the hype and find the ideas and technology that have real value.

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