Public hype around 3D printing seems (speaking anecdotally) to have diminished, at least compared to a decade ago when IT company Gartner put it on its 2012 list of technologies at the “peak of inflated expectations”. At the time, the price for 3D printers was in the process of dropping from $10k, first achieved in 2007, to around $2k in 2016 (according to the website 3D Printing Industry and pertaining to non-industrial machines). As the technology became commercially available, more people came into contact with it and hobbyists bought their own units, printing figurines and Christmas ornaments.
Since those days, however, the technology has entered a new stage of maturity. So says Dean Kauffmann, CEO of 3Dprint.lu, founded in 2012 and specialised in industrial print jobs since 2017. He explains that companies that use additive manufacturing--the technical term for 3D printing--are now doing it in increasingly specialised ways and with increasingly specialised materials. Also, the furore over which manufacturing process are threatened by the technology has died down.
Then versus now
“Back in the day… from 2010 to 2015, there were discussions about what will be replaced with additive manufacturing,” says Kauffmann. We’re safely out of that phase, he continues, it now being clear that the question isn’t about replacing--it’s about offering a “very, very viable alternative”.
For example, 3D printing is ideal if you need a small number of complex parts. Or if you have an old machine with a single broken part that needs replacing.
Hobbyists can still go wild with figurines and Christmas ornaments, of course--and it’s important to note that desktop 3D printers have always been in a different league, both in cost and quality, as their industrial counterparts--but, according to Kauffmann, the picture in 2023 isn’t what it was even three years ago.
“The market is already slowing down with innovations,” he points out, a sign of maturation, even if there are still around 20 to 30 new materials available every year for 3D printers. “New materials” refers to new substances that can be printed, such as specialised plastics certified for medical uses, flame-retardant plastics, etc.
This granularity enables, and is enabled by, the specialisation mentioned above. Kauffmann mentions that the main principles of the technology were perfected between around 2010 and 2020, at which point companies became less interested in doing it all. Now, they are dedicating themselves to (for example) dentistry, aviation, construction, etc. In each of these subsectors, the introduction of a new substance could prove impactful.
Kauffmann explains that part of his company’s aim is advisory. “We are mostly in the role of a trusted partner,” he says, describing how they have guided clients into additive manufacturing by assessing their processes, recommending where changes could be made and designing those changes for them--after which the client’s engineers are able to do it themselves, while 3Dprint.lu stays on to give feedback. “First we do the engineering, then they see the results and then they come up with their own creations,” he says. “From there, we just adapt and give feedback.”
Part of that feedback is also staying up to date with various upgrades and improvements, including newly introduced materials that might prove interesting for particular clients.
“I think that’s why we have so much success in Luxembourg,” the CEO says, speaking about the firm’s policy of manually checking the process and the parts and, more generally, providing feedback. There are other online services where you can get parts printed--by uploading photos of it, for example--but for Kauffmann these websites don’t offer the same support or expertise.
The company also does quality control of its production using a 3D scanner--and scans parts for clients with it too, obviously--the first ISO-certified handheld 3D scanner in Luxembourg.
On the numbers side, the company--which employs just three people--produces around 15,000-20,000 parts per year. “Not that much for a manufacturing company,” says the CEO, “but over 80% of the parts are individual parts.” In other words, the output is heavily weighted towards bespoke designs and not towards mass production.
Circularity and repair culture
The firm’s main business is industrial clients, but an important service for Kauffmann is also individuals who come to 3Dprint.lu in need of a replacement part. “It’s a little bit known that the products coming out these days are not as reliable as old products,” he says. “Imagine you have a drill that your grandfather had, and now it’s broken because of a plastic part… and then you have to throw away the drill of your grandfather, just because of a little plastic part. That’s sad.”
Such a service could play a huge role in repair café culture, a growing movement in Europe in which experts and handypeople offer to fix broken items.
Indeed, sourcing spare parts for products, especially old ones, can be hard or impossible. But 3D printing specialists can reverse engineer the part, print it and thus extend the lifespan of the item. “We bring a kind of circularity in that,” Kauffmann observes. Asked what sort of products they have managed to fix, he says: “Oh, the range is massive. From automotive parts, to broken shower adapters… everything.” The firm’s website additionally mentions a seat cover, a window part and a gear for a mobile chair.
Although this service represents a minor part of the firm’s revenue, it’s important for Kauffmann. “I don’t want to close the link to the private individuals, because I know how valuable it is for them to have a partner where they can go to when they have broken products.”
Speaking more about circularity, the CEO argues that additive manufacturing is, or can soon be, circular. “You’re only using material that is, afterwards, the part,” he points out: in other words, the product is not cut out of a larger chunk of material, so it doesn’t produce scraps. As for printed pieces that, for whatever reason, are not used, Kauffmann says the firm is working on a recycling process so they can reuse those pieces. “That would be the next goal for us.”
Dean Kauffmann will be speaking at the Luxembourg Digital Innovation Hub webinar on additive manufacturing on 17 May.