Is 3D printing just a fad – or is the best yet to come?

What's next for the 3D printing industry?

Education and proper, un-hyped promotion of the technology's benefits wouldn't go amiss since there's a serious lack understanding of what 3D printing actually means.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing mostly uses expensive, advanced plastics and metals, and is just the latest mass manufacturing technique. It has a massive future, just not a particularly exciting one for the average punter.

The steering wheel for the Bloodhound supersonic car has been 3D printed by Renishaw

The steering wheel for the Bloodhound supersonic car has been 3D printed by Renishaw

There are also many different types of 3D printers. "Some of the key technologies are allowing the industry to move beyond prototyping into finished goods production," says Connery. "This is clearly evident in the metal side of 3D printing where a company such as GE is already using 3D printed parts in its LEAP jet engine, and Boeing has recently announced FAA clearance of a 3D printed part in commercial airplanes."

The automotive industry has also proven the reliability of 3D printed products. "The thought that 3D printing will only ever be useful for prototyping is outdated," believes Wilkins, who mentions the FAST project, which sees Constellium, Stelia and CT Ingenierie aim to use 3D printing to produce aerospace structures and parts, including the fuselages.

3D printing is better known as additive manufacturing in industry

3D printing is better known as additive manufacturing in industry

Complex, customised and on-demand

3D printing is at its most useful where complex, customised and on-demand printing is required, hence its increased use in hearing aids, invisible dental braces, and orthopaedics.

That said, there are so many potential orders to be had from home users that desktop 3D printers are still on the industry's wish-list. So expect a new focus on putting 3D printers in schools, largely as a back-door into homes, though perhaps that's too cynical; there is a convincing argument for 3D printing in education.

"3D printers have a huge role to play in education, allowing kids to learn the fundamentals of creation and design, skills this country needs if we're to stay world leaders in product design," says Elsworthy.

An immature, uneven and unpredictable market where new entrants make it hard to analyse – something investors get nervous about – 3D printing continues to grow, but in a different way each quarter. "This past period witnessed the largest Kickstarter effort ever with over 16,000 units pre-ordered," says Connery. "Curiosity is being translated into real product orders."

Chris Elsworthy, CEO of CEL and creator of the Robox 3D printer

Chris Elsworthy, CEO of CEL and creator of the Robox 3D printer

Cultural shift

Despite the dampened-down talk about 3D printers, some think that we're on the cusp of a massive cultural shift from consuming to making. "Being someone that wants to make things for themselves has been seen as an odd way of life in the past, but it's now chic, and soon it will be the norm to make rather than buy," says Elsworthy. "Our culture is slowly changing and with it households that want assistance in making things that are out of their crafting skillset will adopt this technology to realise their ideas."

However, 3D printing won't change the way people think and live overnight; this is going to be a slow and steady step-change.

3D printing is not going to be next year's craze, and nor is it going to replace legacy manufacturing processes. However, its ability to produce short-run, highly personalised products and components – think highly specialised engine parts and artificial limbs – is truly revolutionary.

3D printers may not deserve all the hype they've had so far, but 'open hardware' and 'democratised production' are destined for slow-burn success. "The big market for 3D printing at least for the next five years or so is industry rather than consumer," says Wilkins.