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August 03, 2014 | Tom Ballard

3D printing panel highlights challenges and opportunities

GigTank-teknoBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Noted 3D printing expert Terry Wohlers probably offered the best advice last week for those considering an investment in additive manufacturing systems.

During a panel discussion at the “GIGTANK Demo Day,” Wohlers urged attendees to do their due diligence before making significant capital outlays.

“Don’t believe everything you read or hear,” he said. “Validate it. There’s so much hype.”

Wohlers served as the keynote speaker for “Demo Day” and joined three other industry veterans in an afternoon discussion moderated by Doug Speight, “GIGTANK” Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR).

“You want to do due diligence, but there’s no time to wait,” cautioned Bruce Bradshaw, Director of Marketing in North America for Stratasys, one of the major manufacturers of 3D printing systems.

Wohlers and Bradshaw were joined on the panel by Hugh Evans, Vice President of Corporate Development and Ventures for 3D Systems Corporation, another leading manufacturer, and Jim Underwood, Vice President of Manufacturing and Operations for PlayCore, a company that bills itself as offering “complete play solutions for your community’s needs.”

One could not help but see endless possibilities for 3D printing uses by the time the panelists finished. In the case of PlayCore, Underwood said additive manufacturing is his company’s equivalent of personalized medicine.

“It allows us to create on the fly,” he said in reference to play slides that customized for the individual.

To one of Wohlers’ examples, Speight simply responded,” That’s spooky.” He was referring to the ability to take a digital ultrasound image of a baby, link it to a 3D printing machine, and  . . . Do I need to say more?

“I’ve learned not to be surprised by anything . . . almost everything is possible,” Wohlers quipped.

Over the course of an hour, the four panelists covered a wide ranging set of topics, providing useful insights into the fast-growing technology.

“We’re talking about a hybrid between a designer and an engineer,” Underwood said of the skill sets needed in the 3D printing workforce of the future. “The best people have a little bit of both.”

Evans underscored the point, noting that the “top designers went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), not MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

Those are not the only types of workers needed to support the burgeoning sector. Other expertise that will be required includes system integration, applications development, software development, chemistry, marketing and sales, and service.

“The tool and die mechanic (of today) might be the 3D printing technician of the future,” Underwood said.

On the subject of challenges facing the industry, the panelists identified a number.

“Machines are too expensive and the materials (they use) are not in the zip code,” Wohlers said, adding that production speeds of individual machines must increase and the capacity to manufacturer 3D printers themselves must accelerate as well as the availability of the raw materials that feed the machines.

“There so much room to develop new materials,” Bradshaw added.

While low cost machines are arriving, including one from “GIGTANK” participant Lathon, there are still price challenges in the sector.

“Operating costs are still high for repetitive manufacturing,” Underwood said. “The paradigms that people have for manufacturing are slow to change.”

Yet, Evans probably best captured the enthusiasm of the panel.

“I’m a zealot for 3D printing,” he said. “It’s the most interesting industry and a thrilling moment. Moore’s Law is clearly working.”

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