In 2020, the additive manufacturing industry will be in its mid-30s, married, and have 2 1/2 kids — which makes it a relatively young industry with a lot of life left to live. Hopefully, over the next nine years, we will have moved the pieces further around the board as we anxiously anticipate “passing Go” and collecting our $200.

I have been asked to provide my prediction for 2020. This was a very broad request that could go in many directions, so I had to narrow my thoughts.

Personally, I’m not keen on reading about predictions from the so-called experts, especially since most of them live in a vacuum and try to guess what they think the world should look like in a laboratory.

While I live in the real world of product development and manufacturing, I’m no more qualified to make predictions than my barista at Starbucks, but this is why they pay me the big bucks for writing these blogs, so let’s give it a go...

In the world of product development, there are many areas we could discuss that will continue to have a significant and positive impact on the future. The most important area will be the advancement of CAD, and the power to make complex designs even faster — and easier.

Without the influence of solid modeling technologies in CAD today, the product development world would still be stuck in the ‘80s with engineers designing ugly boxes and taking months to release new products. No cool cars, fancy ergonomics, smart phones, or iPads, but let’s leave the subject of the future of CAD alone and give other columnists something to write about.

Let’s instead focus on additive manufacturing (AM) (or rapid prototyping, depending on the latest article you read).

In 2020, the AM industry will be in its mid-30s, married, and have 2.5 kids — which makes it a relatively young industry with a lot of life left to live. Hopefully, over the next nine years, we will have moved the pieces further around the board as we anxiously anticipate “passing Go” and collecting our $200.

The first 10 years were filled with excitement and expectations, but the last 10 years have been faced with the reality that the rest of the world is not going to sit back and let AM just relax by the pool … can you say, ‘production injection molds?’ What was once a 12-week wait is now easily accomplished in two weeks.

Since soothsaying is not my forte — and I do try to focus on my strengths — let’s limit the predictions to three major advancements. These advancements will have a societal impact and continue to advance the evolution of mankind. These advancements will consistently reduce the cost of product development, which will either make your prices lower, or the profits of your investment companies higher. Either way, society wins.

Essentially, these advancements will result in better designs, more economical manufacturing, and new applications.

1. Complicated, Multi-Functional Designs

The power of design is predicated on the capabilities of the CAD system and the designer. With more information and even more power, we will be able to produce much more complicated designs that are multi-functional (reduces the number of required parts), more ergonomic (they look cooler), and more effective — all by designing with the freedom of creating a part for its purpose without the constraints of manufacturability. However, to make this design power accessible to mere mortals, it requires the ability to efficiently iterate and assess designs in near real-time.

By 2020, every designer worth his salt will have a 3D printer in his office that is able to quickly and economically “print” parts as they are being designed so that changes can be made in minutes instead of days. This power will give the designer the freedom to take chances and assess his changes before proceeding down the product development path.

We have seen this capability improve over the past 15 years with the use of rapid prototyping for designers, but the mass proliferation of 3D printers will make editing designs as easy as writing a blog and printing out a draft for review.

2. Manufacturing for the Part, Not the Process

With designers empowered with technology and freedom to design parts with purpose, without the constraints imposed by some secondary system, the secondary system will have to conform.

By 2020, we will have the power to make parts as they are needed, with the capabilities required to satisfy the intent of the part.

This power will make an economical and innovative impact.

From the early days of AM, the focus has been on shifting the technologies to be useful tools on the factory floor, making parts that can be used in the “real world.” However, it feels as though this has been a slow and painful process with little real impact. The next 10 years will focus on technologies and materials that can produce parts that are satisfactory for the parts’ performance in regards to properties, aesthetics, functionality, and repeatability.

I am confident that the ability to leverage AM for real manufacturing will be the balance to the increasing deficiencies of designers with an overall ignorance of manufacturing today.

As more designers enter the world, they become more proficient at using the power of CAD without understanding the constraints of the real world. At some point, something in the global system of product development must give and conform. If AM manufacturing continues to evolve, the capabilities of these talented young designers will be rewarded in the real world by making their creations producible for the end user just as the traditional process of subtractive and formative manufacturing have advanced over the past century.

3. The Power of Layers

As the forces of CAD, design, and manufacturing conform to each other’s value in the system, the rest of the world will become aware of the prevailing concept of making something – anything – by simplifying the process into uncomplicated, two-dimensional layers. In the next 10 years, the rest of the world will become exposed, and more importantly, have access to, the power of layered manufacturing.

Some areas will include the medicinal world where the user can plug in the components of his/her pills and the machine will make the caplet, layer by layer, in the kitchen.

Imagine how great it would be to reduce the number of vitamins, pills, supplements, etc. into a single pill made just for you. Or in food manufacturing, where you could use unique combinations of ingredients to make your toppings, special candies, or tasty pastries layer by layer.

The concept of creating layer by layer is as old as the earth, but only in the last 30 years has mankind really harnessed this power with technology to make it easily accessible to the masses and applicable to the whole.

As with any blog, this blog could just be my last. I want to express my gratitude and appreciation for the opportunities, exposures, and resources that have been made available during my life.

I have a blessed life with family, friends, and the opportunity to help shape an industry I love into something that will have a significant, positive impact on the world, even into 2020.

May your 2011 be exactly as you plan it to be.