3D Printing in Westworld: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

If you’re like me, you loved this season of Westworld.  It was awesome for many reasons – complex psychological drama, amazing scenery, compelling story lines, and some really cool science fiction underpinning it all.

For those who didn’t catch the season, but may be reading because of the 3D printing topic or the buzz surrounding Sunday’s season finale, the setting of the show is a Wild West theme park filled with robotic “hosts” that have been custom built to interact with park guests.

Central to the premise of the show – from the very opening credits – has been the concept that these hosts are so realistic that they might as well be human.  And 3D printing is the driving force for that that realism.  In striking fashion, the opener shows a 3D printer extruding material to put the finishing touches on a piano, a horse’s knee, and a gun, as well as the eye and musculoskeletal system of a host.  To cap off the intro, the printed host is being gradually lowered into a vat of material as a final step to put a smooth coat over the underlying bone and muscle.

All of this feels pretty science fiction-ey.  But is it?  Is there a foundation of science fact in this science fiction?  And if so, how far away from reality is the 3D printing in the show?

This article will explore some of the key 3D printing capabilities displayed in Westworld, discuss the state of science as it relates to these capabilities, and give you a ballpark sense of how far we are from 3D printing on par with what you’re seeing in the show.

To level set and to avoid spoilers, I’ll stick just to what we see in the opening credits.  So give this a quick watch…

Extrusion and Vat Photopolymerization

On the most basic level, are there 3D printers that behave like the processes in the opener – either extruding material from a nozzle or creating solid parts from liquid baths?  Well, for the uninitiated in the 3D printing, the answer is an absolute yes.  Extrusion – gradually depositing melted material from a nozzle – is one of the fundamental printing technologies, first brought to the market by Stratasys.  When their extrusion patents for “Fused Deposition Modeling” (FDM) expired a few years back, we saw many companies roll out new “Fused Filament Fabrication” (FFF) printers leveraging the extrusion technique.

Creating smooth parts from a bath of resin is actually reminiscent of stereolithography,  the original 3D Printing process.  With stereolithography, a platform gradually descends into a bath of light-sensitive liquid resin.  As that’s happening, one layer at a time of the resin is selectively cured by UV light focused on the platform to create a solid part.  Like FDM, the original stereolithography patents expired a few years back, giving rise to a whole family of “vat photopolymerization” machines.  Given that these sorts of printers tend to be a good bit messier than extrusion printers, they haven’t caught on as much with hobbyists.  But they are found all the time in professional and industrial R&D labs and at 3D printing service providers.

Timeline: It’s already here.

Multiaxis printing

One of the cool aspects of the opening was a robotic arm that extrudes the material at different angles.  Does this exist?  Yes, although not as unequivocally as in the question above.  A number of companies have developed early models of robotic arms that extrude material.  In fact, a Dutch artist even developed a way to extrude material in the gravity defying fashion shown in the opener.

Also, while it’s outside the scope of what we’ve seen in Westworld, we’re starting to see multiaxis 3D printing in metal powder happening as well.  Certain “hybrid” systems which combine Directed Energy Deposition 3D printing and CNC machining can move the build platform along multiple axes, achieving something not quite like the Westworld opener, but still an indication of things to come in metal.

Timeline: Multiaxis printing is in the market today, although commercialization is relatively limited at this time.

Bio Inks

While the skin and internal organs of these 3D printed hosts aren’t addressed overtly, it stands to reason that their skin perfectly mimics real skin and they have some kind vascular system to allow for blood (or blood equivalent) to circulate through their bodies.  Do such systems exist?  Not fully, but early concepts of them are being developed in campus environments today.

The printing of bio inks is an area of intense research at the moment.  Bio inks are water-based solutions that can carry living cells and be deposited by pneumatic extrusion printers.  This bio-printing extrusion process is most commonly known for printing tissue assays to accelerate the testing of new drugs.  However, this printing has been successfully utilized on campus to print skin tissue for burn victims.  And while not directly applicable to Westworld, other applications include bio printing onto biocompatible graft implants or printing bio inks directly onto fractured bone to foster bone growth.

Printing vascular systems – the network of veins, arteries, and capillaries that transport blood across the body – is currently another key area of research.  Within the context of Westworld, it’s perhaps possible that the hosts could have plastic vascular networks, and those are currently printed today to serve as surgical guides – basically practice tools for doctors before they go into surgery.


polyjet printed organs, polyjet surgical guide
Figure 1. Example of a 3D Printed surgical guide. Two cancerous bodies are clearly visible in this life-sized print of a liver

But assuming the hosts have real vascular systems, true bio printing is required, and vascular systems are difficult to print because they are soft tissue.  As a result, vascular systems that would be biocompatible are prone to collapsing under their own weight.  As a result, research is being done in printing vascular structures by extruding the material for the vascular system into something that looks like a block of jello, which can in turn be dissolved away once the system is created.

Timeline: The building blocks of vascular systems are still in the research phase.  It’s safe to assume that we’re at least 10 years away from the sort of integrated bio tissue printing implied by Westworld.

Printed Circuitry

We never explicitly see printing of internal circuitry in the show.  However, it stands to reason that if the hosts don’t have a neural network like humans, they do have some kind of built-in circuitry or other electrical conductivity.

So is printing of circuitry happening?  The answer, again, is yes, although it’s also in the early stages of commercialization.  A number of the same labs that are exploring bio ink applications have also spearheaded work in conductive inks, which utilize a similar method of deposition.  These inks are commonly silver-based and have allowed for integrated circuitry to be built into things like drones and cell phones.  Timeline: Conductive inks are actively printed in the market now for certain applications, especially antennas.  We’re probably looking at 5 years or so before functioning circuitry across a full host body would be achievable.

All-In-One Printing

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 3D printers featured in Westworld is that they seem to have all-in-one capability – the same printer extrudes a white material to create piano strings, ligaments, bones, and revolvers.  Is that really happening?

That’s where there’s a pretty meaningful disconnect.  Currently, the closest we have to single machines capable of producing parts with multiple materials work just in resin, or just in metal.  The Stratasys J750 is probably the most prominent multi-material printer, and it works across a spectrum of resins that certainly don’t include metal or ligament.  Gradient alloys have been achieved in metal printing, but that’s largely a function of sieving in different materials at various times in the printing process.  Additionally, there are some exciting things being done with respect to 4D Printing, which involves printing bespoke materials that change shape based on different environmental conditions.

Still, none of these technologies are rapidly approaching the all-in-one capability of the printer we see in Westworld’s opening credits.  If we are to assume this printer can really do it all, it would appear to be making changes at a molecular level.  That would seem to be a long ways from where 3D printing technologies currently sit.  And if such a printer were possible, would it make sense to bundle all its functionality into a single printer rather than just use different 3D Printing tools?

Timeline: At least 15 years, if it were to ever make commercial sense.

So are we a decade from Westworld becoming a reality?

Many of the printing processes evoked by Westworld have a strong foundation already established by technologies currently in the market or on campus.  So anyone watching Westworld should know there’s a healthy bit of science fact mixed in with the science fiction.  It stands to reason that a good deal of the functional elements presented in Westworld can be achieved in the next 5-15 years.

Personally, I doubt that an extrusion printer that transitions seamlessly from printing bioinks, plastic, ligament, and metal is going to arrive in the next couple decades, if ever.  The ways these sorts of materials are printed today are wildly different.  To imagine all of it converging into a single printer feels a bit more like alchemy than the chemistry and physics of a commercial printer.

With that said, who says you need to do all the printing with a single mind-blowing printer and a vat of resin?  With continued advancement on the foundations already established by printers in the market and in academic environments, Westworld’s vision for 3D Printed everything may not be so far away as you might think.


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, “the 3D Printing Partner for Every Business,” an online rapid manufacturing service that supports designers, R&D engineers, and procurement officials across a multitude of industries.  He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.  

Readers interested in printing with the technologies detailed in this post should email 3Diligent.  

GE Backs Off SLM Solutions Purchase, Audibles to Concept Laser

Commentary: GE rescinds SLM offer, instead buys Concept Laser…and Increases Offer for Arcam

GE made big news in the last 24 hours, backing off its offer to buy laser melting machine maker SLM Solutions and instead is buying fellow German company Concept Laser.  In the same breath, GE bumps its offer for Arcam, a manufacturer of Electron Beam Melting (EBM) systems.  

Check out the video below, where 3Diligent CEO Cullen Hilkene provides commentary on the implications and impacts of this news, including implications for 3D Printing companies that aren’t direct parties to these potential deals.




More Big News from the 3DP World: Carbon gets $80M+ Investment – Commentary

Silicon Valley investors and business partners invest in a CLIP future

Within a week of GE’s announcement it was spending $1.4B to purchase two major players in the metal printing market, we have more big investment news from the 3D Printing world.  This time, the buzz comes from Silicon Valley, and it is Carbon’s announcement that they’ve secured a more than $80M Series C round of financing.  So what do we make of this development?  Who is Carbon?  Why are they getting all this cash?  What do they intend to do with it?  And what implications does this have for the additive manufacturing market more broadly and Carbon’s competitive set specifically?  Below I try to offer a few thoughts on each question.

Who or what is Carbon?

Carbon is an additive manufacturing equipment manufacturer that developed the Continuous Light Interface Process (CLIP).  It manufactures the M1 Printer, which utilizes CLIP technology to create custom parts – currently in a handful of urethane materials.  With CLIP, a focused UV-light projector is shined on a panel at the bottom of a pool of photo sensitive resin.  The image projected on each layer cures that layer of material, then pulls the cured material upward allowing for the next layer of resin to flow into the void to be selectively cured.  CLIP technology is similar in many respects to Digital Light Processing (DLP), another “vat photopolymerization” process that utilizes projected light to “grow” parts.  The main difference, Carbon highlights, is the panel of oxygen it uses to accelerate the pace at which the resin is cured.

It is that speed which helped Carbon burst onto the scene a year and a half ago.  At a Ted Talk, Carbon’s CEO Joseph DeSimone dramatically completed an interview on stage while a latticed ball gradually materialized out of the pool of resin in a nearby M1 Printer.  It was a striking moment – one that captured the imagination of many – especially considering DeSimone mentioned Terminator 2’s liquid metal villain as a source of inspiration for the technology.

Why are they getting all this cash?

From that day to now, Carbon has done a solid job of advancing its technologies, developing promising partnerships, and demonstrating great marketing savvy.  So part of this investment is rooted in execution to date.

The second leg of this is the promise of a 3D Printed production future.

As it sits, 3D Printing is a metaphorical gnat relative to the elephant that is global manufacturing.  As of the latest Wohler’s and Associates estimate, 3D Printing represents around a $5B global market, which is still less than 1% of the $10.5T global manufacturing industry.  But while 3D Printing is still small in relative terms, its growth has been meteoric, at a roughly 30% year-over-year clip for the last half decade.  It also carries the promise that it will not simply displace existing manufacturing applications like machining, molding, and casting, but create new opportunities.  The consensus feeling is that 3D Printing is turning a critical corner from being a prototyping technology to a production technology.  I can attest to this transition – 3Diligent was born because engineering grade plastics and metals for heavier duty applications were coming to market and we believed an online platform to access these emerging technologies and materials seamlessly and on-demand would provide huge value to customers and service providers alike.

Carbon is riding – and on some level doing a significant bit in building – this same wave.

Leveraging DeSimone’s experience as a material science professor at the University of North Carolina, Carbon has developed a number of custom urethanes that they believe are superior to competing resins produced by industry incumbents.  Carbon runs these materials on their M1 machines using parameter sets developed and refined by Carbon based on every part build.   The hope of Carbon and its investors is that combining their speedy hardware, software processing, and material science will roll up into truly functional custom parts that can be built at scale.

This is the same vision being pursued by 3D Systems, Stratasys, HP, and Envisiontec, Carbon’s key competitors in the polymer 3D Printing space.  Notably at this weeks International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, both Stratasys and 3D Systems unveiled systems geared toward production rather than prototyping.  It remains to be seen whether this investment will get Carbon to true production runs in the tens of thousands of parts first.

What are they going to do with the funding?

An investment in Carbon right now signals that Carbon and its partners believe they are truly onto something, have demonstrated sufficient market traction, and should start investing in a full-fledged build-out of its technology.  The first thing this will likely extend to is a ramping up of their manufacturing capability.  DeSimone anticipates growing from 50 installed units now to 100 by year end and 500 next year.  Scaling up manufacturing – both for M1 hardware and related consumable resins – is a costly endeavor.

Beyond ramping up production, it appears that Carbon also has designs on pursuing global growth.  Whereas it has primarily focused its growth in the United States to date, it seems to recognize that companies around the world are looking to position themselves for a 3D Printed future.  The extent to which Carbon can be the machine of choice that R&D engineers, designers, and plant managers across the world can become that technology of choice has to be top of mind for DeSimone and his team at Carbon.

Lastly, you can assume that Carbon will push some of that capital toward existing operations.  Carbon has offered up a roadmap to extend beyond the five materials they currently offer – that will require material science research funding.  And while Carbon has stated with its subscription model that it should be able to simply perform “over-the-air” updates to keep its machines up to date, it stands to reason that Carbon will continue to explore enhancements to its hardware and explore ways to broaden the application of its technology.  Currently, Carbon’s printer has a relatively tall and thin build chamber, meaning that there are certain part geometries that isn’t currently well equipped to build (e.g., an iPad) without splitting into pieces for assembly.  It’s possible that it will allocate some resources to a future model with a larger build chamber.

What are the implications of this for the industry?

At this time, it’s safe to say that incumbents 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Envisiontec all must recognize that there’s another new kid on the block.  Less than a year since HP signaled it’s going all in on 3D Printing as well with its new Multi Jet Fusion technology, Carbon has secured the funding to really go toe-to-toe with the biggest in the industry.  This investment values the company at over $1B, which puts it within 70% of the market cap for 3D Systems – the original 3D Printing company and inventor of the stereolithography technology that CLIP builds upon – and nearly the same value as Stratasys, the other major publicly traded polymer 3D Printing company.

Aside from the fact that Stratasys, 3D Systems, and Envisiontec face another credible threat for market share beyond the threat that HP poses, my sense is that this doesn’t necessarily serve as a signal for consolidation in the market.  Whereas GE’s deal last week creates a single player in the metal printing market with disproportionate resources, the polymers space remains fragmented with a number of viable players.  I think you can expect these companies – plus some others that are also making a push for this market at a global level (e.g., Prodways) – to continue duking it out for a while before any clear winners emerge.  It’s possible you could see pairing up in an effort to consolidate the market in the face of these new competitive threats – or potentially another purchase from GE (they’re invested in Carbon) or HP.  But because the polymers market is older, the growth is a bit slower, and the battle lines longstanding, the calculus in polymer 3D Printing doesn’t add up in quite the same way as it does in the metals market.

What are the implications of this for you?

If you’re reading this as someone who uses or is interested in using 3D Printing technology, this is good news for you.  Whereas GE’s play in the metals market may deter competitive investment, accelerate consolidation, and potentially deter innovation, Carbon and HP being added to the mix has demonstrably pushed market incumbents to take notice and try to innovate at a faster pace.  The likelihood that we’ll arrive at true production 3D Printed polymer end-use parts – and distributed mass production of custom goods – has gone up with this announcement.

While we wait for any sort of clear leader to be established – if that day ever truly comes – 3Diligent is the perfect partner to support you with our 3D Printing services.  3Diligent was built on the premise that this sort of tectonic shifting in the market was inevitable and likely to continue for at least the next decade, if not longer…the market opportunity is just too big for us not to see more players pursuing innovation breakthroughs and market share.  That’s why we are focused on developing innovative procurement software and developing relationships with service providers that are investing in and developing expertise with these different technologies.  We are pleased to offer 3D Printing services across Carbon, 3D Systems, Stratasys, Envisiontec, and more than a half dozen other brands across plastics, metals, and more.

We look forward to supporting you on a project soon – perhaps with a Carbon printer manufactured with the proceeds from this funding round…


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, “the 3D Printing Partner for Every Business,” an online rapid manufacturing service that supports designers, R&D engineers, and procurement officials across a multitude of industries.  He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.  


Blockbuster Deal: GE to buy SLM Solutions and Arcam

Major News for the 3D Printing Industry

Major news from the 3D Printing world broke today when it was announced that GE is to purchase Arcam and SLM Solutions, two major players in the metal 3D Printing industry.  We highlighted those companies a year ago in a blog post emphasizing metal 3D Printing as a clear growth spot in the industry as some publicly traded polymer printing giants were cratering.  Arcam is up 57% today and SLM Solutions closed up 40%.  Clearly, GE sees a lot of growth, as the news pushed Arcam’s stock to a price to earnings ratio of 214:1 vs. SLM’s PE Ratio to 342:1.

GE Considerations for the Purchases

While GE buying both companies in a single gambit is impressive and earth moving as far as the fledgling metal printing industry is concerned, that they bought a printer manufacturer is not a major surprise.  GE has been pushing the boundaries of the technology for years, having announced two years ago that it would 3D Print all of its next generation LEAP fuel jet engine nozzles.  With sticker prices over $1M for high end metal machines and the need for thousands of machines to support their growth plans, the $1.4B in acquisitions may be entirely justified by GE’s need to control its supply base.

Other Potential Strategic Implications of the Purchases

At the same time, the move is likely to have significant strategic implications beyond sheer supply chain management for both GE and the industry at large.

Arcam has an effective proprietary choke hold on powder bed Electron Beam Melting (EBM) technology, which is especially valued in the med tech and aerospace industries for its abilities to effectively print titanium.  It is possible, albeit unlikely, that GE will restrict its level of support for competing aviation businesses that have invested in EBM machines.  Instead, GE could could choose to primarily support its own endeavors with the technology and selectively sell machines into the market or not sell them at all.  Whereas Arcam before was clearly motivated to generate profits by selling machines, it’s unclear whether GE’s most profitable course would be to continue doing so or selectively withhold the technology from the market.

With that said, the most likely scenario is that GE simply puts its weight behind refining Arcam technology and marketing the heck out of it.  At an America Makes meeting I attended at GE’s Global Innovation Center a couple months back and on many occasions before, GE spoke of its desire to grow the industry and collaborate with industry participants.  And until probably today, Electron Beam Melting technology was only known to a select set of companies and leading service providers.   GE’s acquisition will likely drive a new level of interest and willingness to buy the technology.  Recognizing that competing EBM technologies will eventually enter the market once Arcam’s patents expire, GE may simply choose to sell as many printers as possible and enjoy dominant market share.

The SLM Solutions investment, in contrast, would clearly seem to be a play for supply chain support.  SLM Solutions battles with comparable equipment from EOS, Concept Laser, and Renishaw especially.  SLM Solutions is well known for offering a relatively open architecture, providing users an opportunity to experiment with different parameters to “dial in” high quality prints.  However, considering that Renishaw and Concept Laser offer similar levels of openness, it wouldn’t seem that this is acquisition offers clear strategic benefits beyond the obvious ones.  The SLM Solutions purchase bolsters GE’s supply chain and provides a solid new product for GE to sell.

Who is impacted?

While time will tell whether GE will continue to actively sell these machines into the market or keep the technologies to themselves as a competitive advantage in developing additive end use parts, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s comments would lend support the former. “We are poised to not only benefit from this movement as a customer, but spearhead it as a leading supplier,” he stated.  If it can be taken at face value that GE is going to push sales of its machines beyond the walls of GE, the news would seem to be a shot across the bow for EOS, Concept Laser, Renishaw, and 3D Systems, which has made a number of smaller metal acquisitions in recent years.  To a lesser extent, it might also be concerning for Stratasys, which does not market a metal printer at this time, but recently invested in metal printing startup Desktop Metal presumably in hopes of getting a piece of the metal printing pie.  GE soon after invested there too.

The plot thickens in the metal additive manufacturing world…

The Evolving State of American Manufacturing

Automation driving productivity gains but retraining programs needed

A really insightful article was published by Ylan Q. Mui of the Washington Post today.  It spoke about the current state of American manufacturing, which has obviously been a topic of immense focus in this election cycle.

What the article tells us is that American manufacturing is actually doing very well, at least from an aggregate production standpoint.  In fact, total output is nearing the all-time high levels that occurred immediately prior to the Great Recession.

american manufacturing, automation impacts on productivity
The Fed notes that total American manufacturing production has climbed significantly in the last few decades.

It is true that the total number of Americans employed in manufacturing has gone down significantly in recent years.  But that inherently implies that the people doing the manufacturing are reaching new levels of productivity on a per person basis.

We can speak to this first hand.  Every day at 3Diligent, we interact with companies pursuing more effective production of their next generation prototypes, production parts, replacement spares, and custom tools to support some of their traditional manufacturing processes.  All of these companies recognize that advancements in technology are providing them new and better ways of doing things.  Injection Molding, CNC Machining, and most recently Additive Manufacturing (a.k.a. 3D Printing) are all examples in that progression.  Our rock star contract manufacturing partners utilize those tools to accelerate innovation and make our customers more competitive in the global marketplace.

Automation is a good thing.  It allows us to innovate faster and produce more products locally that otherwise would need to be sent overseas to be price competitive.  While the pace of change can sometimes make us uncomfortable, we have to recognize that short of an international truce on technological advancement, continued automation is going to happen.  Because America doesn’t have a monopoly on processors, memory chips, and the internet, trying to pump the brakes on technological advancement only stands to leave us behind those countries who are pushing forward aggressively.  Better to be the ones doing the innovating and creating the next generation technologies than the ones having to buy them from overseas once foreign countries have developed them.

With that said, whether it be to automation or overseas labor, there are a significant number of manufacturing professionals who have been lost in the shuffle.  So for all the macro benefits that faster times to market and lower unit costs provide the American economy, at the micro level, there are some very real consequences for those individuals displaced by technological advancement and their families.

The number of American workers in the manufacturing sector has declined in recent years
The number of American workers in the manufacturing sector has declined significantly in recent years

It is of critical importance then that America develops retraining programs for manufacturing workers displaced by automation and globalization.  Such retraining programs can equip those displaced workers with the skills to tackle jobs for the new manufacturing economy or transition them into other industries.

That is one of the reasons that we at 3Diligent are big supporters and proud members of America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.  In addition to funding a wide number of research programs helping foster American innovation in the area of 3D Printing, they are also starting to really tackle the challenge of helping train the next generation of American manufacturers in how to get the most out of additive manufacturing technology and take this innovation from the R&D lab to the shop floor.

American manufacturing is doing admirably but it isn’t without some serious growing pains.  We are excited to support innovative companies that are embracing this evolution and organizations like America Makes doing the right things to help retrain American manufacturing workers to succeed in these times of rapid change.

3Diligent: The Next Generation 3D Printing Service

3D Printing is naturally and uniquely suited to distributed production across many sites.  3Diligent has qualified and networked the providers to do distributed manufacturing right.


Despite less than stellar stock performance from a few publicly traded market leaders who placed unfortunate bets on consumer 3D printing, the additive manufacturing industry as a whole is indisputably in a state of rapid expansion.

Innovation is happening across myriad industries.  Surgeons are improving patient recovery times and care through custom 3D Printed implants.  Aerospace companies are shedding pounds off their planes and months off their time to market with topologically-optimized designed-for-3D parts.  Manufacturing companies are creating highly complex jigs, fixtures, and molding inserts with 3D printing to bring down costs of production and increase efficiency.


The Catalyst: Proliferation of Industrial 3D Printing Processes and Materials

All of this is brought about by a proliferation of new 3D Printing technologies and materials that are allowing for ever-expanding applications.  No longer exclusively the province of 3D Systems and Stratasys, innovation is coming from all corners.

The metals world is led by a mixed bag of companies including EOS, Concept Laser, Arcam, SLM Solutions, ExOne, and Renishaw, with prospects like XJet and Desktop Metal on the way.  With respect to plastics and resins, just look to the recent launch of Carbon and the impending market arrivals of flagship products from Voxel8 and HP as indications that competition is not just from imitators, but true innovators, with each bringing unique capabilities to bear.


Arcam, EBM, Concept Laser, Lasercusing, EOS, DMLS, 3D Systems, SLS, stereolithography, Envisiontec, DLP, 3SP, Stratasys, PolyJet, FDM
Parts from Arcam, Concept Laser, EOS, 3D Systems, Envisiontec, and Stratasys machinery

The Problem: Identifying the Right Process/Material Combination to Meet Your Additive Manufacturing Needs

In aggregate, it’s clearly an exciting time for the industry.  But if you’re a user rather than manufacturer of these technologies, where does all this leave you and your company?  Advancement in technology is wonderful – it brings the promise that you’ll soon be able to do more, faster.  But it comes with a very clear caveat emptor.  With rapidly evolving technology comes risk of ownership.  The costs of buying equipment and material, training staff, and servicing the machinery are significant – and come with the threat that it will all be for naught when the next big thing hits the market.

3d printing decision, 3d printing options
Balancing process tradeoffs when no single machine can do it all can be a source of real frustration.


It’s no wonder then that many companies often choose to offload that risk and learning curve onto outsourced service providers – or service bureaus as they are otherwise known.

But does an outsource service provider really solve the problem?  Overall customer satisfaction with service providers suggests the answer is no.  Prices are sometimes insanely high, material availability is spotty, and lead times can be weeks.  Of course, this makes sense.  These service providers face the same constraints that their customers do – they can realistically only carry a subset of machinery and materials, and as a result, customers are constrained by what providers are running when.  It seems as often as not, service providers are calling a friend at another provider for a quote, adding a few percent to that price, and seeing whether the customer will take it.  It’s no wonder that for a technology that is supposed to bring down costs and increase speed, things tend to feel expensive and slow!

3Diligent: A Next Generation Solution for a Next Generation Technology

One Los Angeles-based startup is looking to solve this industry dilemma: 3Diligent.  In light of the rapidly evolving landscape for this next generation technology, the team at 3Diligent believes a next generation service solution is required.

3Diligent is in some ways like Uber or Amazon for industrial grade additive manufacturing.  Both of those companies created a superior customer experience by creating digital connective tissue between demand and sources of supply that might otherwise go untapped.  Both also provide you a range of mid-to-high end options depending on your need at the moment.  Just think, on Amazon you might buy a TV from a retailer you wouldn’t find online in a million years, or via Uber you might hitch a ride from a guy named Jim that you couldn’t have known was game to drive you halfway across town at a moment’s notice.  Both provide tremendous customer benefit by connecting the dots of the market with hyper efficiency.

3Diligent's network of industrial additive manufacturing service providers spans across North America and more than a dozen processes. So this challenging question is answered...and well.
3Diligent’s network of industrial additive manufacturing service providers spans across North America and more than a dozen processes. So this challenging question is answered…and well.

3Diligent is bringing this distributed supply, on-demand model to the industrial 3D printing world.  Over the past two years, the 3Diligent team has vetted and qualified industrial service providers for its 3D printing service.  The 3Diligent network now represents several dozen industrial service providers across North America representing roughly a half billion dollars in annual manufacturing capacity.  At any given point, there are hundreds of 3Diligent-networked machines ready for a new project, running dozens of different resins, plastics, and metals.

Implications of a Distributed Industrial Manufacturing Partner for Your Business

What does this mean for you as a customer?  An expectation of faster turnarounds and highly competitive prices on your prototyping for a start.  Customers across many industries visit 3Diligent.com to submit RFQs, which the 3Diligent algorithm then analyzes to identify capable vendors and facilitate real-time bidding for the work.  Customers accept bids on the platform, and 3Diligent guarantees the quality of parts, offering customers a full refund unless agreed upon specs, tolerances, and delivery deadlines are met.

3d printing partner, 3d printing service bureau, 3d printing company, 3d printer, 3d printing service, 3d printing service provider, service bureau
. 3Diligent’s algorithm and team of experts analyze RFQs and identify the most capable vendors for that particular job.

Figure 4.  3Diligent’s algorithm and team of experts analyze RFQs and identify the most capable vendors for that particular job.

Pushing toward production runs?  Again, 3Diligent offers the prospect of a flexible and scalable partner by operating as a general contractor for project runs across its distributed network. By its nature, this network provides more capacity than any single provider along with the ability to rapidly scale up.  3Diligent also offers a hedge against supply chain disruption, as its distributed network across North America prevents local calamities from impacting your broader production.

Closing Thoughts

It is an indisputably exciting time for innovation in 3D printing.  Hardware is advancing rapidly, which is good news for speed and reliability.  New materials are being announced regularly, opening the door to new applications.  And 3Diligent continues to advance its software and service offering, ensuring customers can access this rapidly expanding universe of opportunities through its next generation 3D Printing service.


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, a 3D printing service provider.  He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.  

A version of this article previously appeared on Engineering.com.

Key 3D Printing Takeaways from CES 2016

3Diligent Goes to Vegas

A couple weeks ago, members of the 3Diligent team paid a visit to Sin City to take in the sights and sounds of the International Consumer Electronics Show.  Since we’re all about industrial grade 3D Printing, we don’t go looking for the next generation of personal printers on display there.  We go to connect with our customers displaying at the show and to take in the 3D Printing discussion track, where some of our industry’s heavyweights offer perspective on how they are positioning themselves to support the next wave of consumer products – whether it be toys, electronics, or household durable goods.  The sessions didn’t disappoint.  And whereas last year “generative design” ruled the day, this year it was “bespoke materials.”

So without further ado, here are five key 3D Printing takeaways from CES 2016:

  1. The Lewis Lab – and presumably Voxel8 with it – have some cool materials in the pipeline.

    Jennifer Lewis has become somewhat of a brand name in the 3D Printing industry for the advanced 3D Printing work she’s done in her lab at Harvard.  At a biomedical conference we attended in 2015, the buzz was about work the lab was doing to print vascular systems.  At CES, she led a discussion about material science.  The most publicized breakthrough they’ve made is in the silver-based conductive ink used in the Voxel8 printer.  But they plan to release a number of different “inks” that take 3D Printing “beyond form, and start to integrate function” in the near future.  Conductive, epoxy, flexible, and battery inks are all in the pipeline and have been tested with compelling results in their lab.

  2. Carbon3D’s angle isn’t just speed, it’s materials too.

    Carbon3D’s Joe DeSimone used the CES platform to make some notable announcements about their offering, although we haven’t seen much of it made in the press just yet.  The big announcement – that they are rolling out 4 resin-based materials – is significant for a few reasons.  First is that they’ve developed custom polyurethanes that their data suggests are comparable to a number of thermoplastic counterparts.  These include rigid, semi-rigid, high heat, and elastomer, providing a decent range of options for varying applications.  Second is that if those resins are truly industrial strength and the Carbon3D speed is what it’s cracked up to be, then Carbon has offered a meaningful step in transitioning 3D Printing from being a primarily prototyping to production technology.

  3. The ISS is open for business, via Made In Space.

    Made in Space is a super cool company, solving a major supply chain problem…getting things to space is really expensive.  Not only do you need to buck up for a rocket that can get you there, but you also have to massively over-engineer anything making the trip to space strictly for the few minutes it’s taking on big G forces to get out of our atmosphere.  With Made In Space’s “space-grade” 3D Printer, astronauts on the International Space Station can simply have files beamed to them and then printed by the crew.  That’s cool by itself, but perhaps not the basis of big business.  Now MIS is taking things a step further now, by opening up the ISS 3D Printer for business.  Made In Space has designs on having companies beam designs for cube sats (small, high powered cube satellites) and other high value assets for printing in space that would otherwise have to hitch a ride on a rocket.

  4. HP’s MJF is on its way later this year.

    HP offered some perspective on its 3D Printing endeavor, Multi Jet Fusion.  Scott Schiller of HP provided some detail on the process, which sounds like existing multijet/colorjet printing on steroids, with a lot more nozzles and thermoplastic (nylon, in particular) instead of gypsum powder.  He described the process as building upon the technology in HP’s large form 2D Printers, which are differentiated by a staggering number of nozzles per square inch.  It appears that with so many nozzles in such a small space, curing of the powder can happen much faster and possibly at a higher level of detail/crispness than previously possible.  It did make us wonder though, if you’re going to saturate the powder with all of these nozzles, what does this do to material properties?  Existing MJP/CJP technologies don’t tend to produce especially durable parts, but we’ve seen pictures of HP test parts doing heavy duty applications.  As we approach HP’s launch target of Q4, we look forward to seeing additional testing data.

  5. The 3D Printing market is up to $4.5B globally.

    Joe Kempton from Canalys offered up that consultancy’s current estimate of the global 3D Printing market is $4.5 Billion.  That figure reflects the combination of total annual revenues across printers, materials, and services.  45% of that amount was in the Americas, 34% in Europe/Middle East/Africa, and 21% in the Asia Pacific region.  We look forward to the estimate in the forthcoming Wohler’s Report as another reference point on the industry’s continued growth.

Did you make it to CES and have other big takeaways?  Do any of these developments speak to you?  Let us know in the comments!


Cullen and the 3Diligent Team


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, the Sourcing Solution for Industrial Grade Rapid Manufacturing. He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting. For more information about 3D Printing and to access 3Diligent’s marketplace of 3D Printing vendors, visit www.3Diligent.com

Key Considerations For Any Company Buying a 3D Printer

As a tidal wave of 3D Printing news has crashed across the headlines of news outlets, corporate leadership has taken notice.  Whether a company has a pressing need or application for 3D Printing, it has become an increasingly common Chief Officer mandate to “take stock of what 3D Printing is, how it can/will impact our company, and come up with a strategy of what to do about it.”

Because 3D Printing already provides a fundamentally more efficient way to prototype most products and increasing ability to print end-use parts on-demand, most companies find that there is a place for 3D Printing in their strategic plans.  Often, the decision boils down to buying a 3D Printer (or several), utilizing a service provider or providers, or some hybrid of the two.

In this three-part series “3D Printing – Buy Then Build vs. Buy Built,” we set out to provide a framework to consider purchasing printers and utilizing service providers to fill your needs.

In this first post, we set out to discuss the topic of buying a printer and then building parts in-house.  Below are some of the considerations companies should take into account when assessing whether they should buy a 3D Printer.


Hard Costs

This is the most obvious one.  While the most basic desktop printers can be had for a few hundred bucks, industrial grade equipment starts in the tens of thousands of dollars.  For top of the line plastics equipment, you’re looking at several hundred thousand dollars.  Investigating metal printing?  Regularly those machines cost in excess of a million.

You might be thinking, why such a broad range of prices?  It comes down to functionality, reliability, speed, and size.  Industrial printers are capable of printing in a broader range of materials, more accurately and reliably, faster and often with bigger build trays.

But do those differences matter to you?  Can you get what you need or want out of a desktop printer?  Or some percentage of what you need/want out of a desktop printer and the rest from a service provider?  Beyond the hard cost of purchasing, there are also the costs of feedstock and maintenance, so weigh them all.

Get a sense of the hard dollars you have to spend first to make sure you’re looking in the right ballpark of options.


Soft Costs

Once you’ve got an operating budget, consider the human impacts within your organization of making a purchase.

Do you have the people to operate and maintain a machine effectively?  Do you have a culture that supports CAD design and will keep that printer humming?

It’s important that you can either carve out time from existing personnel’s schedule to develop expertise on the system, or to hire new staff that can take ownership of making the most out of your 3D Printing investment.  Realize that there is both art and science to operating a machine – we’re not to push button parts yet – and there’s a significant learning curve that comes along with a printer purchase.

Make sure you have the manpower and organizational commitment to support your investment.  The last thing you want is a high-dollar investment growing cobwebs in the corner of the shop floor.


Once you’ve got a sense of what you can spend and how much staffing up will bite out of your budget, then consider how you’d like to use your equipment.  Different machines are capable of different types of printing, and no single printer can do it all.

First, are you looking to print in metal or plastic?  If metal, there are powder bed and blown powder options to consider.  All are capable of end use parts, but different machines and processes lend themselves to different applications.

If plastic, do your prints need to be functional?  Or are you simply looking for accurate models?

If you need functional models with some durability, a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine might be best for you.  Those machines offer a range of thermoplastics, some of which are quite durable.  Ultem 9085, for instance, is an FDM thermoplastic that has received FAA certifications for its high resistance to heat and fire.

If your models don’t need to be durable, PolyJet or Stereolithography might be a better fit.  Those printer types use resin as the “ink” to build their 3D Printed parts.  As a result of this, they are incredibly accurate – PolyJet can print in 16 micron layers – but not especially durable over time.

Also, what sort of geometries are you trying to achieve?  SLS, for instance, has virtually no limitations on design freedom.  That process works by laying down one layer of fine powder at a time, selectively fusing together those particles in the layer that it wants solid, and leaves the rest of the layer alone.  Then another layer of powder, another run of the laser, again and again, until the part is made.  Because the “extra powder” still sits in the bed, it serves as a support to whatever is being built above.  This extra powder can also be recycled for future parts.

PolyJet can achieve something near this level of freedom, as some machines are capable of  printing both end material and dissolvable support material.  Meanwhile, stereolithography machines require supports for overhanging areas, and FDM parts do as well.  These supports require manual removal.

Do you need color in your prints?  How big do your prints need to be?  Do you need to produce in a very specific material?  All are worth considering.

Build out a list of “need to haves” and “want to haves” (and possibly “can’t haves”), then figure out whether there’s a machine or collection of machines in your budget that fit the bill.



We call out some of the capabilities and limitations of different technologies in the previous paragraph with a hint of hesitation.  That’s because the market is evolving so fast.  Market fixtures like Stratasys, 3D Systems, EOS, SLM Solutions, and Arcam AB who’ve put those products into market may introduce new functions or features to next generation models to refine existing processes.  After all, the list of potential innovators and competitors in the space is growing.  We’ve seen traditional names like Dremel, Renishaw, Mitsubishi, and Cincinnati recently enter the ranks of the 3D Printing world.  As of Wohlers and Associates last count, there are more than 300 “FDM Knockoffs” that utilize plastic extrusion.  Beyond those who’ve already entered the market, every couple weeks we’re also hearing about another “breakthrough innovation” that claims it will soon render existing equipment obsolete.  Many of these innovations are currently still in development, but HP, Carbon3D, and Gizmo3D have all offered compelling prototype videos to announce technologies that may massively accelerate the speed of printing, especially in plastics.

Now, it remains to be seen whether any company’s innovation renders your printer obsolete in the truest sense of the word.  Printers will continue printing as long as the manufacturer continues providing technical support, and probably a good while longer depending on the model.  Consider the implications of this for you and your business.  If a printer with markedly faster speed, accuracy, material breadth, or build size hit the market, would you need it, or could you keep getting by with this investment without being put at a competitive disadvantage?  If you would want or need that new printer, how quickly do you need to recoup your investment vs. utilizing a service provider during that time?

Make sure that you’re going to be comfortable with your purchase when the “next big thing” hits the market.

Consider Alternatives

So you’ve considered cost, printer options, and obsolescence risks.  And now you have a plan reflecting the fixed and variable costs of your investment, a few target printers in the right range, an estimate of the time/resources required to staff the printer(s), and a degree of comfort with the state of that machine on the obsolescence curve.

If you didn’t hit any snags along the way, you’ve got yourself a viable option.  You could call it the Buy Then Build Option.

But is it necessarily the right option?  Better take a second to consider alternatives.  You could do some core printing in-house and outsource the rest.  Or you could outsource all of it as you wait for the market to mature.

An exploration of the “Hybrid” and “Buy Everything Built” options will appear in our next posts.


Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, the Sourcing Solution for Industrial Grade Rapid Manufacturing. He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting. For more information about 3D Printing and to access 3Diligent’s marketplace of 3D Printing vendors, visit www.3Diligent.com.

AT Kearney’s 3D Printing Industry Report – Key Takeaways

AT Kearney, a leading global consultancy with expertise in the 3D Printing industry, recently released 3D Printing: A Manufacturing Revolution.  Lots of great content in there, outlining their belief of how the market will evolve and grow at an average growth rate of 25% over the next five years en route to being a $17B global industry by 2020.  This is a bit less than the Wohler’s Report’s estimate of $20B by 2020, but they are clearly believers in a continuation of the aggressive market growth we are seeing at 3Diligent.

The 16-page report has a number of interesting takeaways, but here are the big ones:

1. The question is not if but when companies need to consider 3D Printing.  This is the very first line of the report.  AT Kearney fundamentally believes in the disruptive nature of the technology, and that most every company will need to incorporate 3D Printing into their operations at some point – whether it’s simply for prototyping or as a more central part of the supply chain for mass production.  Smart companies will get ahead of the curve and start down this road to 3DP integration sooner.

2. There are 5 dimensions upon which 3DP offers breakthrough benefits relative to traditional manufacturing.  Those are: 1) making custom designs for end users (mass customization), 2) producing complex products with much lower capital investments and lower variable costs (New Capabilities), 3) faster speed to market through accelerated R&D (Lead time and speed), 4) eliminating inventory requirements through on-demand part manufacture (Supply chain simplification), and 5) reduction in scrap (Waste reduction).

3.   Value chains will be disrupted by 3D Printing.  AT Kearney foresees a world where mobile and 3DP integration will allow for customers to see an item they like, customize it via their phone, and have it printed on demand to be picked up within hours.  Naturally, this uproots the existing system, where decisions on inventory stocking are typically made months in advance, leaving customers to take or leave what’s there, with the power of the internet to hopefully aid them in finding a viable option.

4.  The fastest growth will come from the jewelry and energy sectors.  3D Printing has been most readily adopted so far by aerospace, industrial, healthcare, and automotive companies, and significant growth of 15-25% per year is expected for each of those sectors.  However, the most rapid growth is anticipated for the jewelry (25-30% per year) and energy (30-35% per year) industries.

5. Hardware improvements are needed to achieve production levels for many industries.  While 3DP serves as a viable solution for prototyping and limited production run products, the end goal is to achieve rapid manufacture of production parts at significant scale.  Gating criteria to achieving mass production are printer speed, available materials, assembly and testing, and achievable tolerances.  While they expect these criteria will be achieved in the next 5-7 years for such products as cameras, biomedical device kits, and iPhone cases, scale production of such items as cars, apple watches, cosmetics, and helmets are likely to farther away.  

6. New software platforms will be vital to support 3DP applications.  To support this new ecosystem, software will need to be developed that supports the evolving supply chain.

We here at 3Diligent generally think AT Kearney has done a very nice job of setting the stage, and we encourage you to give the report a read yourself.  For a bit of additional detail on applications and possibilities of 3D Printing, have a look at our Possbilities of 3D Printing report.  Additionally, if you’re curious to know more about the prototype/production crossover point, you might be interested in having a look at the 3DP Crossover Point Post within our Economics of 3D Printing series.



Economics of 3D Printing, Part Two: The 3DP Crossover Point

In our last post, we touched on the evolution of manufacturing from the days of antiquity to today.  Per its closing comments, we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift in manufacturing.  While Globalization has been defined by subtractive manufacturing at tremendous scale in low cost economies, this next generation will be defined by something quite different.  While global manufacture of simple parts in low cost locations will persist for generations to come – with simple, standard parts, it will probably always be the way – additive manufacturing for fast turn, complex parts will increasingly integrate into the supply chains of corporations around the world.  In this post, we’ll dive deeper into a comparison of the “globalization” manufacturing approach relative to 3D Printing, discuss how key cost inputs are likely to evolve, and how that impacts the “3DP Crossover Point.”

A Quick Recap

To level set from our previous post, we find it useful to track the evolution of key inputs that have driven the cost of goods over time.  The key inputs we looked at were Material, Labor, Shipping, and Overhead.  As time has gone by, costs on the whole have gone down.  At each step of the way, a different lever or combination of levers were pulled to drive down this cost.  For instance, raw materials grew cheaper through better extraction techniques, labor cost went down through outsourcing to lower cost markets, and shipping cost dropped through advances in transportation.  We’ve generally seen an increase in what we’re calling overhead as an overall percentage of cost, as sales, marketing, and management layers grew.  But in recent years, we’ve even seen the cost of that layer reduce with the offshoring of white collar jobs, as supported by advances in telecommunications support increasingly global work forces.

The New Cost Calculation

CAD-based manufacturing more broadly, and 3D Printing more specifically, stands to take this evolution a step farther.  To recap some of the detail provided in the previous post, the comparison between Globalization-style manufacturing and 3D Printing is summarized here:

Globalization vs. 3D Printing_V2

As it stands, 3D Printing has markedly higher raw material costs, comparable labor cost (due to a lower amount of labor required), and  lower shipping costs (because it tends to be shipped a shorter distance).  3D Printers are expensive, but so too are traditional lathes, mills, etc.  The net effect of these tradeoffs is that certain jobs lend themselves to one process or the other.  For now, the jobs that tend to make sense for 3D Printing / CNC Machining are rapid turn parts in small quantities.  For these smaller job, the investment in tooling required to run a traditional manufacturing process can simply be too high.  For instance, an injection molded part might cost tens of thousands for the mold but just a few dollars in variable unit cost.  To 3D print the part might only cost $10 per unit with virtually no setup cost – so long as a the print bed is filled, maximum .  As you can ascertain from this example, a crossover point tends to exist where it’s better to make a bigger up front investment and smaller unit cost.  But up to that point – so long as there aren’t material limitations – 3D Printing or CNC Machining is the better choice.

Graph of Rapid Manufacturing and Traditional Manufacturing Crossover

The Evolving 3DP Crossover Point


We only see the point at which 3D Printing gives way to traditional manufacturing processes gradually pushing out in the future:

Graph of 3DP - Traditional manufacturing crossover
As advances in material and equipment cost open the door to localized manufacturing (lower shipping costs), the crossover point between rapid manufacturing and traditional manufacturing will push to higher volumes

Currently, material costs are very high because manufacturers have operated with a razor and blade model – often selling the printers at relatively thin margins and capturing profit on proprietary materials to be used in those printers.  With that said, the rapid expansion of the market and recent announcements of new entrants stands to suggest an increasingly open materials marketplace.  In this future state, materials prices stand to go down – especially as large materials companies who have been waiting for the industry to mature begin pushing into the market themselves.

Labor costs are positioned to drive down in a similar way.  3D Printing is driven by Computer Aided Design (CAD) files – they read a design that’s been uploaded into the printer, and it builds the part.  Currently, there is a significant degree of art to go along with the science of 3D Printing, which means engineers play a significant role in managing the production.  But while even industrial machines are not simple push-button part machines, that is the direction printer manufacturers are going.  In this way, labor rates in a given location don’t matter, because there are virtually zero man hours allocated against production of a given part.

This then leads to Shipping costs, which also stand to be lower with 3D Printing.  Because 1) material cost should be fairly equal around the world and 2) labor cost should be a non-factor, then the need to utilize far away markets for production is significantly diminished.  Instead, customers can bring production in-house or, as our platform facilitates, utilize service providers who’ve invested in the technology.  Doing so massively drives down the cost of shipping.



Now that production quality materials have become available for industrial 3D Printers, there are many occasions when 3D Printing is a better alternative to traditional manufacturing techniques.  For now, those projects are the ones with limited volumes, high complexity, and quick turnaround needs.  That limited 3DP to a prototyping niche for the past few decades.  However, the door is opening to spare parts manufacturing and limited run production parts in the present, and in the not-too-distant future the larger scale fabrication of production parts.

We’ll discuss the implications of this in a future post…