A Manufacturing Revolution


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An eternal optimist, Liu-Yue built two social enterprises to help make the world a better place. Liu-Yue co-founded Oxstones Investment Club a searchable content platform and business tools for knowledge sharing and financial education. Oxstones.com also provides investors with direct access to U.S. commercial real estate opportunities and other alternative investments. In addition, Liu-Yue also co-founded Cute Brands a cause-oriented character brand management and brand licensing company that creates social awareness on global issues and societal challenges through character creations. Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavors, Liu-Yue worked as an Executive Associate at M&T Bank in the Structured Real Estate Finance Group where he worked with senior management on multiple bank-wide risk management projects. He also had a dual role as a commercial banker advising UHNWIs and family offices on investments, credit, and banking needs while focused on residential CRE, infrastructure development, and affordable housing projects. Prior to M&T, he held a number of positions in Latin American equities and bonds investment groups at SBC Warburg Dillon Read (Swiss Bank), OFFITBANK (the wealth management division of Wachovia Bank), and in small cap equities at Steinberg Priest Capital Management (family office). Liu-Yue has an MBA specializing in investment management and strategy from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Marketing from Stern School of Business at NYU. He also completed graduate studies in international management at the University of Oxford, Trinity College.

By Chris Wood, Casey’s Research,

A revolution is under way. It’s still in its early stages, but will likely reach epic proportions over the coming decades. Simply put, it will turn the economics of manufacturing on its head.

Additive manufacturing – or 3D printing, as it’s commonly known – is already a $1 billion+ business. And the stage is set for huge growth in the years ahead.

According to Wohlers Report 2011 ( the industry’s bible), revenues produced by all additive manufacturing products and services last year reached a record $1.34 billion and reflected a growth rate of 24.1% from 2009. The compound annual growth rate for the industry’s 23-year history is an impressive 26.2%. And conservative forecasts call for revenues to reach $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

Many of the products that you use today – from the car that you drive to your smartphone – have been conceived, designed, prototyped, modeled, and tooled with the help of a 3D printer.

More than 100 companies worldwide do some sort of 3D additive manufacturing, according to Wohlers Associates. So 3D printing technology is already changing the world. But we haven’t seen anything yet.

In the early days of this industry, the primary use of 3D printers was for rapid prototyping. Industries ranging from architecture to aerospace used these machines to quickly go from drawing board to tangible model or prototype on the cheap.

While good design software allows the virtual creation of three-dimensional objects on a computer screen, businesses require a physical object they can hold and inspect before committing huge sums to manufacturing and production. Traditionally, this was a time-intensive and expensive process, even for making a nonworking model of a simple item. Creating something as mundane as a new sole for a shoe, for instance, came with complex problems. Turning the design of a new sole into a model used to take Timberland a week, at a cost of around $1,200. You can imagine the expenditure of time and money for more complicated models.

3D printing changed all that. In Timberland’s case, it has cut the time to 90 minutes and the cost to $35.

Rapid modeling and prototyping still makes the biggest business case for 3D printing. But as the technology has improved, the machines are increasingly being used to make final products too. According to Wohlers Associates, more than 20% of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes. The firm predicts this figure will rise to 50% by 2020.

For example, a team of researchers at Filton (where Britain’s fleet of Concorde supersonic airliners were built) who are part of EADS Innovation Works – the research arm of EADS, a European defense and aerospace group best known for building Airbuses – have printed a complex, shoe-sized, titanium landing-gear bracket for use in an airplane. Normally, the piece would be made from a solid block of metal using the traditional “subtractive” manufacturing process, which can result in 90% of the material being cut away. It also uses more energy than “additive” manufacturing. And that’s just the beginning. Obviously, the size of printable parts is limited by the size of 3D printers, but the group believes ever bigger systems are not only possible but inevitable. They hope to soon print out the entire wing of an airliner.

As this trend in specialty manufacturing accelerates, further technological improvements will transform the rapid prototyping of today into the rapid manufacturing of end-use products tomorrow. What’s more, as prices for 3D printers continue to decline, a virtually untapped consumer market will begin to emerge. Together, these two factors will fuel huge industry growth in the years ahead.

But what exactly is 3D printing? It is simply the process of joining materials together to make three-dimensional objects, usually layer by layer (like one might hand-build a clay pot), as opposed to the more well-known practice of subtractive manufacturing (like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble until he created the Pietà).

Within that broad definition, the term “3D printing” itself is generally used to refer to a number of distinct manufacturing technologies. All are additive manufacturing processes, but the differences lie in the way the layers are built to create the end product.

3D printing always starts with three-dimensional CAD (computer-aided design) data, with the data sliced into thin layers, then fed to the 3D printer. The printer then typically employs one of six manufacturing technologies to create the desired object.

3D Printing Using Inkjet Technology

As can be inferred by the name, this technology is just traditional inkjet printing with an added dimension: The printer, guided by the computer model, mixes a special powder substrate with a binder to solidify it and deposits that, one layer at a time, until it has built up the final product.

Here’s a video that’s recently gone viral, depicting this process on one of private company Z Corp.’s machines.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Developed by Scott Crump, cofounder and CEO of Stratasys Inc. in the late 1980s, FDM technology is like 3D printing with a hot glue gun. The FDM printer creates three-dimensional objects by heating up thermoplastic modeling material and precisely extruding it layer by layer, from the bottom up, along with any necessary support structures. The soluble support structures are then dissolved in a water-based solution, leaving an object with a smooth surface and fine details intact.

A video about the creation of this technology and where it is now can be seen here.


Using a combination of laser, photochemistry, and software technologies, stereolithography creates 3D objects essentially by drawing the object with a beam of UV light aimed at a photosensitive pool called a liquid photopolymer. The light beam traces a cross section of the desired object, turning a thin layer of the liquid plastic to solid, then adheres it to the layer below. The process continues, layer by layer, to completion.

Stereolithography was invented by Charles Hull, cofounder and CTO of 3D Systems Corp. in 1986.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS is very similar to stereolithography, except the UV light is replaced with a high-power laser and the vat of liquid photopolymer is replaced with a powder base. The laser selectively fuses powdered material by scanning cross sections of the desired object on the surface of the powder bed. After each cross section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer, and the process is repeated until the desired object is completed. Unlike stereolithography and FDM, SLS does not require support structures since the part being constructed is surrounded by unsintered powder at all times.


Two other, less widely used 3D printing technologies are laminated object manufacturing (LOM) and electron beam melting (EBM).

LOM involves cutting and gluing thousands of sheets of material (usually paper) together to form solid objects.

EBM is similar to SLS technology but is capable of producing even more robust and exacting products. The technology manufactures the desired object by melting metal powder layer by layer with an electron beam in a high vacuum. The end products are fully dense, void-free, and extremely strong.

Each method of 3D printing has its advantages. The primary attraction of inkjets is speed. FDM is generally one of the cheaper forms of 3D printing. Stereolithography enables a very high level of detail and surface finish. SLS allows one to produce parts in a wide variety of materials ranging from plastics to ceramics to metals.

Regardless of which technique is best suited to a particular application, it’s easy to appreciate the potential of 3D printing to change the world. The various technologies are already being used for rapid prototyping and specialty manufacturing by countless industries, from medicine and aerospace to fashion and construction.

From here we see the market developing in two directions in the short run. First there will be growing demand from engineers and designers for simpler and cheaper desktop 3D printers that are able to produce prototypes or concept models quickly. Demand will also increase for much more elaborate machines capable of cost-effectively creating widgets by the thousands, paving the way for tomorrow’s fast, on-demand manufacturing.

Further down the road lies the utopian future where we can all instantly download, distribute, and manufacture anything, anytime, anywhere. Obviously this is still a long way off, if it is even attainable. But it may not be as far-fetched as Bill Gates’ dream of a computer on every desk and in every home was 30 years ago.

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