When I was in college, I took a unique interest in 3D printing and prototyping. I used to go to the Cincinnati Public Library Makerspace and create objects for various projects I was working on. It was a learning experience and one that felt very liberating.

I had the tools to create a wide range of objects by myself and with little direction from others. Essentially it was an engineering playground. This, coupled with newly learned software and design skills, I was able to experiment, tinker, and create.

When I moved to Chicago, all of that went away. I needed to find something else that would provide a similar experience. So I researched and found an online platform called…..

Wait, before we get to that, let’s take a step back.

While researching for this article, I didn’t know anything about the technology’s history, and whenever I study a topic, I like to be thorough.

Don’t you?

3D printing originated with Charles Hull, who filed a patent for a stereolithography apparatus (SLA) in 1986. The first additive manufacturing mechanism, SLA, worked on the principle of “Photopolymerization, a process by which light causes chains of molecules to link together, forming polymers.”

Charles Hull went on the found 3D Systems Corporation, one of the largest 3D printing companies still in existence today. But by the end of the 80’s, many players had popped up including Carl Deckard of the University of Texas, Scott Crump, co-founder of Stratasys and Hans Langer of Germany.

Each original innovator provided the industry with a unique process and expanded the scope of what 3D printing could do. Over the years, incremental innovation has consistently improved each process further- a wider range of materials, lower production costs, more funding and larger markets have increased applicability and cost effectiveness.

With recent breakthroughs and computing power providing an exponential launch ramp, this technology is poised to disrupt.

If you don’t think so, here’s a simple fact that may change your mind.

In 2014, PWC’s survey of over 100 manufacturing companies showed 11% had switched to production of 3D printed parts or products. To provide some context, a technology is mainstream when it reaches an adoption level of 20%. And that was in 2014!

See what I mean?

Some of the largest companies in the world, including GE, Lockheed Martin, and Google are currently using 3D printing to produce and iterate prototypes and products much faster and at lower costs. Even start-ups are joining the game. As of this year, Delhi-based startup, 3Dexter, brought 3D printing technology to Indian classrooms throughout the country. Enabling the next generation an opportunity to create and learn. 

I knew large companies were doing this behind the scenes. I had read articles about the technology before and always saw it being used by companies with billions in revenue and R&D money. But where was the love for the typical entrepreneur with a simple checkbook and visa card? 

Back in Chicago, I went exploring for options and stumbled upon 3D hubs.

I wanted to understand the technological landscape applicable for consumers and small businesses. Specifically, I wanted to understand where it is now, how an individual can get involved, and where it will be in the next 5 years?  

To answer these questions, I reached out to 3D hub’s headquarters in Amsterdam to get the full story. I sat down with George Fisher-Wilson to hear firsthand about the next generation of 3D printing technology.

In your own words, tell me a little bit more about 3D Hubs

3D Hubs is the world’s largest network of local 3D printing services. Thanks to its local nature, 3D Hubs is the fastest 3D printing solution for product designers and engineers that do prototyping and small series production. Today, the network consists of over 30,000 3D printing locations.

How are you different than other 3D printing spaces?

The main differences for 3D Hubs are two things: first, the hyper-local nature of the network and secondly, the available range of materials. You can order five prints in five highly unique materials from five different service providers and receive them all in less than 48 hours. You can even take this a step further and design a prototype in London and then order the same prototype for your New York, Amsterdam and Toronto office without needing to ship it or wait weeks for a centralised bureau to fulfill your order.

“For organizations, this is an incredible opportunity to develop, test and iterate products many times faster and at lower costs”

Since your founding in 2013, what are 2 major changes that have taken place to illustrate the versatility and power of 3D printing?

1. The increase in industrial machines on our platform and their access in general. Traditionally SLS and PolyJet machines were exclusive to high-end centralised service bureaus that meant no direct contact with the operator which is something you want when you’re spending large sums of money and time to create the object. Since 2013, access to these machines has increased hugely by opening them up via 3D Hubs to their surrounding neighbourhoods, cities, and states. This allows for faster iteration times and faster speeds of innovation.

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2. Materials are evolving. There are more choices than ever for your applications. The materials for all technologies are continually changing, when desktop 3D printing hit the market you could print in PLA and ABS, and that was about it. Now you can use a composite of bronze, copper, wood, and even magnetic filaments. On top of this, machine manufacturers now combine materials in the process. For example, Voxel8  is the first functional electronics printer by combining both conductive ink and PLA plastic.

What industry do you see the most potential for disruption in the next 5 years?

The field of engineering, in general, continues to see innovation after innovation. As an example, the new Airbus A350 XWB has over 1,000 3D printed parts offering a way to create parts not possible with traditional manufacturing, which means less weight, less fuel, and better cost efficiency. We also see disruption in the ways engineers make things; traditionally cnc’ing was the way to go to create unique tooling. Now we have engineers on our platform using Fiber-Reinforced Nylon, a super strong composite material to save weeks of lead times and at around 20% of the original cost. In the next 5 years, the technology will only get better, more accessible and faster. Resulting in disruption in the way engineers iterate and create.

What economic market have you seen the most growth in 3D printing use in the last year?

Western Europe and North America continue to be the strongest markets in the industry.

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We’ve seen this trend for many things- computers, phones, the internet. Technology begins clunky, overpriced, unpractical, slow but then innovation chips away at each of these qualities over time. And what emerges is something with the exact opposite qualities it began with -ubiquitous, user-friendly, cheap, and practical. Imagine a time when 3D printing has reached that state. Imagine the opportunities.

3D hubs is making way for that revolution today. 

As an entrepreneur always on the lookout for the next business opportunity, use this technology today and profit from it tomorrow. This is how the trend goes. 

The revolution is coming and my question to leave you with is simple: How will you get involved?

For more information on 3D printing, visit 3D Hubs definitive guide for beginners, “What is 3D printing?” and for the latest trends, visit 3D Hubs 2016 Trend Report

Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.

Jared Haggit
Jared is the founder of TEDxUCincinnati which realized a dream to spread the University of Cincinnati’s thought leadership, research, and expertise to the world. He currently works for Cision, the leading media intelligence software solution, to understand the needs of Fortune 500 companies across all industry verticals and provide solutions that save time, money and resources. In addition, he currently advises the TEDxUCincinnati leadership team, works to develop strategic partnerships for the Next Gen Summit, and is a published health and fitness writer.