To get an overview on the event, as well as their views on the 3D printing industry, we spoke to Debbie Holton, Director, North American Events and Industry Strategy, and Kevin Ayers, Industry Manager, Additive Manufacturing and 3D Technology at SME. Holton began with some history of the event, which had its beginnings in 1991. 3D printing technology was quite new at the time, and the event has grown substantially over time to reach its size in 2014, when it was the largest gathering in the event's history with 153 exhibitor companies and 3,445 attendees. Most of that growth has occurred in the last few years in relation to the sudden growth in the industry. Referring to the event's growth, Holton remarked that for many years the industry had been "treading water," but that several factors had played in its more recent surge to prominence in a variety of industries. Among these are equipment costs going down while equipment capabilities go up--according to Ayers, if "you want to buy a machine tool you're going to spend $40,000, or you could spend $7,000 on a 3D printer."
Exhibitors at RAPID 2014
In addition to less capital being required to adopt 3D printing, Holton and Ayers also pointed to the media attention being given to the technology over the last few years, which has helped capture the imagination of a diverse audience outside of the traditional additive manufacturing community. At the same time, 3D printing has put new life into the concern over manufacturing as an integral part of a healthy economy. In Ayers' words, "I think the average person recognizes how important manufacturing is in the world, and in the United States, and how that creates jobs and feeds other parts of the economy as well." As 3D printing represents a reinvention of manufacturing, it has the potential to help revive manufacturing in the U.S. economy.
3D printing's growing role in manufacturing was clearly on display at RAPID 2014, which included some of the country's largest corporations like GE and Motorola, as well as many smaller start-up companies riding the industry's recent explosive growth. Further, while traditional manufacturing applications of 3D printing were common, there were also many companies applying the technology in other areas, such as in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries, and some of these smaller companies are responsible for some of the most innovative advances in 3D printing. Nevertheless, Holton pointed out that although 3D printing does lend itself to people setting up shop in their garages and starting a company, due to its low start up cost, the "reality is that the larger companies are the ones making the big advances in technology," especially companies like GE and Boeing, as well as government agencies like NASA.
As 3D printing continues its explosive growth, we recently checked in with SME, which sponsored this summer's RAPID 2014 Conference and Exposition event in Detroit. Devoted to bringing the 3D printing community together, RAPID 2014 had thousands of companies in attendance showcasing their products as well as attendees representing business owners, product designers, and company representatives evaluating the 3D printing options in order to make equipment choices for their firms.