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The following is a guest blog authored by Avi Reichental, President and CEO, 3D Systems that appeared in Disruptive Magazine’s blog on the future of 3D printingClick here to read Avi’s full Executive Insight article at Disruptive Magazine.

In 2003, I was offered the opportunity to partner with Chuck Hull and together advance and democratize the very 3D printing technology he pioneered and invented in 1983.

It was a tremendous honor, but I was conflicted. On the one hand, I could see the unlimited possibilities of this groundbreaking technology — even though applications were few and far between at the time. On the other hand, 3D printing was still nascent and there were risks in joining a company that, at the time, seemed adrift in uncharted waters. Still, recognizing this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a movement that could fundamentally change the world, I was all in.

Fast-forward to the present day and the promise and potential of 3D printing is brighter than anything I could have imagined in 2003. Today, this technology touches everything around us, from the cars we drive to the planes we fly in, to the smartphones we rely on, and the glasses, shoes and jewellery we wear to express our individuality. 3D printing is in our factories, our offices, our classrooms and our homes; it is the engine behind the game-changing personalized healthcare revolution, and it is powering the greatest productivity boost in design and manufacturing since the introduction of factory automation.

The passionate women and men at 3D Systems believe that the world would be better if everyone had the means and the skills to transform human potential. True to that belief, each and every day we discover new and transformative applications for 3D printing technology that allow us to do something better than we could the day before. We help architects and engineers design and build better structures, faster. We make vehicles — from submarines to spacecraft — manoeuvre better while consuming less fuel. We achieve better medical outcomes that help people lead longer and healthier lives. Moreover, applying this same pattern of optimization, it’s easy to see how the amazing work underway in 3D printed edibles today can lead to personalized nutrition tomorrow.

Everywhere we apply 3D printing, we make great things happen. From the kitchen to the factory floor to the operating room, what makes all of this progress possible is the Digital Thread: the seamless link that allows us to transform the virtual world into the actual world and then back again. The Digital Thread is the raw power behind 3D technologies that we are just now beginning to understand and exploit. It is what allows engineers to scan, model manufacture and inspect — all in a single workflow, all without leaving their desk. And it is what allows surgeons to train, plan, rehearse, instrument and execute patient specific procedures from patient data.

Each time we move across the Digital Thread — from digital to actual orfrom actual to digital — we generate new combinations, new workflows, new capabilities and new value. In short, it is within this virtual-reality continuum that the full disruptive potential of 3D printing can be found. Take Align Technologies, for example, a company that discovered how to manufacture clear orthodontic aligners en masse from individual scans of patients’ mouths and singlehandedly rewrote the rules of their industry in so doing. Last year alone, the company delivered more than 20 million of their trademark Invisalign braces, each one made-to-measure for a specific man, woman or child. In other words, Align Technologies used 3D printing and the Digital Thread to disrupt and transform the way we align teeth.

This is why the future of 3D printing is not about printers at all. Make no mistake, advanced high-speed print engines and high performance print materials are key drivers towards unlocking the full potential in this industry. But they are only part of the equation; they are the output devices of the industrial Internet. Equally important are the devices and software that capture, create and customize virtual objects within this ecosystem. All of these technologies by themselves are game-changing. But it is when we start to blend them into interoperable, end-to-end digital workflows — with traditional manufacturing methods — that we start to unleash our full human potential to create, build and solve.

Yet, despite the progress and promise we see all around us, we must remind ourselves that we are in the early innings of mainstreaming and that much more will be revealed. Remember that 3D printing is an exponential technology and its capabilities are increasing at an accelerating pace. But it’s more than just Moore’s law of regarding speed and cost! What’s at play here is the convergence of 3D printing with adjacent exponential technologies such as robotics, augmented reality, cloud computing, sensing and advanced control systems. That is hastening progress in 3D printing faster than anyone could have dreamed and expanding our notion of what is possible on a daily basis.

Ten years ago, if you told me where 3D printing would be today, I wouldn’t have believed you — not for a lack of vision or ambition, but because exponential technologies often outpace our own imaginations. Consider this, just a decade ago, commercial direct metal printing was a dream and printing surgical instruments and implants only an aspiration. Today, metal printers and healthcare are amongst our fastest growing activities.

Those are important lessons that must shape and inform the next leg of our journey. We exist in a world where “need it now” is colliding with “fit for me”, generating a new expectation for how we create, construct and consume. In this bold new reality, our job is to provide you with the means and skills that let you make great things happen. Together we can manufacture a brighter future.