Just a few years ago 3D, or three-dimensional, printing was hyped as manufacturing’s second coming. Many experts thought we’d all be making tools and toys at home by now. And, they declared, everything from cars to planes to medical devices would be easily and cheaply made. While it is theoretically possible to print much of what was promised, 3D printing hasn’t yet made the inroads some thought it would.

But to many industry experts, that’s OK. They say we’re on the verge of a 3D printing boom, in part because an increasing number of engineers, designers, technologists and researchers are learning about additive manufacturing, another name for 3D printing, in schools around the world. At the same time, more industries are finding uses for 3D printing, from making car parts to manufacturing tools.

Statista estimates that the 3D printing market will top $16.2bn in 2019.

Wanted Analytics, a software firm that collects hiring data trends, reported that the number of job ads asking for additive manufacturing skills increased by 1,834% between 2010 and 2014. The most sought after employees with 3D experience, the firm found: industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, software developers, commercial and industrial designers and marketing managers.

The main reason for job demand growth is that the interest in 3D printing is still expanding at a phenomenal rate, even if we’re not printing our own knick knacks at home. Statista, a company that aggregates research reports, estimates that the 3D printing market, which includes printing, materials and associated services, sales will top $16.2bnin 2019, up from $3.8bn in 2014, while Gartner Research, a global IT research firm, estimates that sales of cheaper printers in the sub $1,000 range – an important driver of the market – will account for 28.1% of sales by 2018, up from 11.6% in 2014. 

Click on the arrow above to see how 3D printing is changing the nature of jobs in the world of artists and designers.

Specialised skills

Despite what Wanted Analytics found, Nima Mirpourian, a branch manager at Toronto’s Robert Half Technology, a company that specializes in IT staffing, hasn’t yet seen many job postings requiring 3D technology skills, but he expects that to change soon. “We’re starting to hear rumblings about the hiring pickup in 3D printing,” he says.

Although 3D printing “is a very specialised area of expertise,” said Mirpourian, anyone with an interest in this space could land themselves a job, as there are opportunities for people almost any field. First of all, 3D printing is often considered more of a technology than a manufacturing application, meaning that developers, coders, programmers and other technology-related staffers will be needed to create and develop the software required to run 3D printing machines.

There should also be more opportunities for creative types, such as designers and artists, who will help create the products printed by these printers. More manual labour will also be needed to operate printers and handle parts and prototypes, said Todd Grimm, a member of the 3D Printing Association’s advisory board.

There are also opportunities in research and development, where scientists and academics are developing new theories on how additive materials should be used and made, said Pete Basiliere, Gartner’s research vice-president of imaging and print services.

Those with some 3D printing knowhow are likely to be heavily recruited as the industry grows. “Experience trumps all,” said Mirpourian. “This is a disruptor in the marketplace and because of that, these skills, especially on the development and design side, are super relevant.”

Reasons for optimism

There are several reasons why Basiliere and others think that 3D printing is about to take off. One is because of those new graduates who have learnt additive manufacturing skills in university and will apply these in to their first jobs. The military sector, which hopes to use 3D printing for everything from food — cartridges are filled with ingredients that then can create eats on-demand — to weapons, is teaching recruits to use this technology.

Eight years ago, a small desktop 3D printer cost $20,000. It’s now $400.

Prices are also coming down. Over the last eight years, printer costs dropped by thousands of dollars. Grimm said that eight years ago, a small desktop 3D printer cost $20,000. It’s now $400 and the price will continue to fall.

Companies are also starting to wrap their heads around how to incorporate 3D printing into their business.

There are three main uses for 3D printing, said Grimm. The first is to make prototypes and models that validate the design of something before it’s manufactured. That’s been the “bread and butter” of the industry for years, he said, and will continue to be a main driver of growth.

Technology has also advanced enough to do a short product runs of about 500 or so products. That allows companies to test goods in the market.

It’s also being used in factories to make the tools, such as screws, fixtures and jigs, that then are used to make other products, said Grimm.

Finally, more companies likely will use 3D printing to make finished goods, or at least parts of finished goods. One of the advantages to this tech is that it allows companies to make far more complicated parts that are thinner, more circular and more flexible than what traditional manufacturing systems can make, said Grimm.

Sectors with 3D success

At some point, 3D printing will be used by nearly every industry, but at the moment aerospace is one of the biggest consumers. General Electric, for instance, has made jet engine parts, such as fuel nozzles and turbine systems, out of 3D-printed components. NASA has created a combustion chamber for its rockets out of additive materials.

Additive manufacturing is also seeing rapid growth in the health care space, where the technology is being used to create bones, implants, organs and even hearts.

Most of the growth in printing has been in Europe and North America so far, but Grimm expects China to become a leading player in the market, too. “The country is taking a position for the coming change in the manufacturing world,” he said.  

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