For decades, three-dimensional printing technology was used for rapid prototyping of products by engineers, designers, and architects.
The past few years, however, has seen 3-D printing adopted as a manufacturing process for producing finished goods. Plane maker Boeing now makes hundreds of different 3-D-printed parts, such as air ducts and cabin trays, for its aircraft.
The technology has also become more mainstream, thanks to the growing popularity of low-cost, desktop 3D printers for consumers. Users of kits from desktop 3D printer firm MakerBot Industries can print out a vase, for example, based on a trove of digital designs that are free to download from the Thingiverse website.
"I believe the industry has reached an inflection point this year," Scott Crump, the chairman and chief innovation officer of 3-D printer maker Stratasys, told the South China Morning Post last month.
Crump, recognised as one of the fathers of 3-D printing technology, has a front-row seat from which to view the industry with his position at Stratasys, a supplier of industrial 3-D printers.
The 60-year-old co-founded Stratasys in 1988 with his wife, Lisa. Headquartered in Minnesota, in the United States, and listed on the Nasdaq, Stratasys last month announced its acquisition of MakerBot for US$403 million. The companies expect their merger to drive faster adoption of desktop 3-D printing worldwide, and position Stratasys as the undisputed industry leader.
A report by consultancy McKinsey forecast the 3-D printing industry to generate a global economic impact of between US$230 billion to US$550 billion per year by 2025, as the technology advances and printer costs fall, and as the number of applications which consumers and businesses use it for grows.
For Crump, a mechanical engineer, the 3-D printer industry has come a long a way from when he started doing experiments in the kitchen at home.
In 1988, he decided to make a toy frog for his young daughter using a glue gun loaded with a mixture of polyethylene and candle wax. His idea was to create the shape of the toy layer by layer. The experiment resulted in a lot of burned plastic pans, as he tried to figure out the best way to do it.
His wife convinced him to move his project to the garage, where he devoted many weekends to it. He then thought of a way to automate the process, spent US$10,000 on digital-plotting equipment, and created the first prototypes of the toy.
Along the way, his wife insisted that he either turn his obsession into a business or give it up.
"We had to make a decision as we were spending a lot of money on a hobby," Crump said.
In 1989, he patented the 3-D printing technique that he developed, called Fused Deposition Modelling, which decades later became the core technology behind consumer desktop 3-D printers. Stratasys was incorporated the same year. MakerBot's printer prices start from about US$1,000.
"If you think about it, it's kind of bizarre to start a business that is based on 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) at a time when there was no 3-D CAD," Crump said. Funding was the initial roadblock for Crump in launching Stratasys.
"We didn't have a lot of cash, so we liquidated all our family assets and put them in the company," he said. "We raised US$264,000. That was it."
The first Stratasys 3-D kit cost US$130,000, but had no buyers. Crump decided to develop larger machines, suited for major companies, such as General Motors and 3M, which could afford to buy the expensive product. To build five of the machines, each about the size of a refrigerator, Stratasys needed more funds.
"We tried dialling for dollars from family and friends, but we soon decided to bite the bullet and reach out to venture capitalists," Crump said.
Stratasys found Battery Ventures, which took a 35 per cent stake in the firm for US$1.2 million. Stratasys sold its first product, called "3D Modeller", in April 1992. The company went public in October 1994 and its merger last year with Israel-based Object bolstered its lead in the professional 3-D printer market.
After spearheading a series of strategic investments, research, and partnerships, Crump is relishing his new roles in the company. "It was a big burden on me to be the chairman, president, and CEO, as well as CFO," he said. "I'm doing more of what I like to do now."
That means he is now free to explore new opportunities for the company's next 25 years of development. This time, he has the whole world in which to do new experiments.