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Despite Market Woes, 3D Printing Has a Future Thanks to Higher Education

Photo by Tom Claes on Unsplash

3D Printing has been a media darling over the past few years with catchy headlines and stories of inexpensive prosthetics, eye-catching “printed” attire and jewelry, and use in practically every industry. But what big 3D printing manufacturers are currently realizing is that anecdotes alone are not enough to increase their sales.  The two largest manufacturers have sent signals that this is true.  Look no further than the fact that 3D Systems’ (NYSE:DDD) longtime CEO Avi Reichental stepped down amid poor 2015 performance and rumors of plant closures.  Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) felt a similar pain as stock has dropped roughly 70% year to date.

But users of 3D printing technology paint a very different picture. Recognizing industry needs, General Electric has created FirstBuild, an organization with the mission of engaging communities by using new methods and technological tools to power innovation and encourage engineering thinking.  They surmised that a significant hindrance to the growth of the industry is talent.  GE FirstBuild hosted numerous 3D printing hackathons, which while fun and engaging, alone cannot solve the fundamental problem: a gap in the workforce. Many companies around the world in the industry need help filling the surplus of jobs available. As a result, designers, engineers, and skilled users of the 3D printing ecosystem are a hot commodity.  While sales rates of new 3D printers may not be growing as fast as they were between 2012 and 2014, printers are being used as much as ever.

Universities are brokering innovative solutions to the labor shortage in the 3D printing space.  Visionary educators see the opportunity and inevitable disruption that is being sparked by the technology and want to be at the forefront.  Pragmatists at many universities around the world know that there is a fundamental skills gap in knowledge about 3D printing, and they want their matriculating students to fill that void.

University of Maryland is one of the institutions leading the charge on this front. Their investment has ranged  from buying close to a million dollars worth of professional 3D printers to building an $300K innovation center made up of desktop printers and workflow software to purchasing small 3D printers designed by an actual student.  Students are using this technology in several  engineering and entrepreneurship courses.  The university even has its own racing team “Terps Racing” that stays on the razor-edge by designing and producing innovative parts for their race cars using the 3D printers. Students graduating from the university are being quickly recruited by industry giants and government agencies validating University of Maryland’s 3D printing investments in recent years.

Making the same bet in a different way, officials at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio believe in the creativity unleashed by the technology. University President Michael Graham said they are preparing their “students for jobs that have yet to be created.” They did so by partnering with MakerBot to bring 3D printers and scanners to campus through an Innovation Center.  Although Xavier does not have an engineering degree program, the university’s investment in 3D technology indicates that there is use for this technology in a myriad of ways including having added value for the arts and humanities.  They published case studies on the various uses of 3D printing including canine prosthetics to accelerated theater set design.

Xavier’s investment in 3D printing could have a major impact in how we see the merits of merging technology innovation with the arts and humanities. Because Xavier has such a strong education degree program, it’s no surprise that many alumni enter the teaching profession after graduation. An output of teachers knowledgeable about the 3D technology presents a great opportunity to address the labor shortage in the industry. Alums who really connected with 3D printing during their undergraduate experience could then go on to teach their students in grades K-12 about the technology. In turn, this may inspire more children to pursue careers in 3D printing. Xavier alumni could be teaching the next generation of 3D experts.

With dozens of universities and thousands of K-12 schools now educating students on the 3D printing ecosystem, we are likely to have many industry and governments needed skillsets largely filled within a decade if not sooner. Universities are certainly betting on the industry in spite of the stock market performance.  University officials believe that access to cutting-edge 3D printing technology  can lead to an influx of technical and innovative graduates filling the talent gap.  Higher education is signaling to the world its belief in the health of the 3D printing industry over the long-term, despite false indicators of the short-term volatility of the 3D printing.

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