CMP Series

How 3D Printing Is Impacting the Meetings Industry

3D printing promises to upend manufacturing, disrupt existing supply chains, and rewrite how products come to market. It’s already led to life-saving innovations in medicine, and groundbreaking advances in construction and design.

CMP_3D_typeYes, 3D printing has arrived, and people can’t seem to get enough of it. New meetings and expositions are springing up across the globe to feed professional and consumer interest in the emerging technology, and established meetings are seeing an increased 3D-printing presence.

But to what extent the technology actually will be utilized within the industry is not yet clear. “The impact will be less hands-on, more big-picture, in that it will redefine almost every industry landscape, and that has implications for the trade show industry, entrepreneurs and innovators widely across multiple industries,” said Tara Dunion, senior director of event communications for International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the giant technology show held in Las Vegas each January.

Corbin Ball

Meetings-technology consultant Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, DES, agrees. “On a global scale, it’s a significant technology trend,” he said, “but not one that’s going to impact the meetings industry in the next five years.”

But not everyone is so sure. “It does have a tremendous ability to change our industry,” said Wilson Tang, senior director of experience design and digital strategy at FreemanXP, Freeman’s brand experience agency.

To gain a clearer sense of how profound (or not) 3D printing’s impact may be on  events, Convene spoke with planners, designers, futurists, and technologists inside and outside the industry. We asked about 3D printing’s current uses, its future potential — and how it might influence how we gather and learn.


While 3D printing — aka “additive manufacturing” — is often heralded as a breakthrough technology, it’s actually existed for decades. “The whole area of 3D printing and additive manufacturing has been around for over 30 years, and yet only recently has it entered the public consciousness,” said Ian Ferguson, membership director of The 3D Printing Association, an international member organization made up of manufacturers, designers, resellers, and 3D-printing professionals and enthusiasts. American engineer Chuck Hull created the first working 3D printer back in 1983. Three years later Hull launched the first commercial 3D printing company, 3D Systems, and the technology spent the next few decades existing and evolving on the periphery of the manufacturing and industrial-engineering industries.

It’s probably worth noting that 3D “printing” is not printing at all. Technically, it’s a manufacturing technique that uses an ink-jet-like device to create physical objects from digital models. The device puts down successive layers of a manufacturing material (plastic, metal, chocolate — you name it), essentially building a three-dimensional object from a digital file. Because the printer follows the digital file exactly, there is no waste or excess materials, and each product can be highly customized.

In the early days of 3D printing, the printers were big, expensive, and slow, and their use was fairly limited. As the technology evolved, and early patents expired, costs began dropping, accuracy improved, and innovators began experimenting with more and different materials. By the turn of the century, 3D printing had gained a strong foothold in the architecture, aerospace, biotech, medical, automotive, and industrial engineering industries.

Each week, it seems, a news story heralds the latest 3D-printing feat.

The technology is still evolving (it can take days to print a complex product), but it’s proliferating. Each week, it seems, a news story heralds the latest 3D-printing feat. 3D printers can produce everything from prosthetic limbs to a functioning kidney; jet-engine parts to an entire car; and stilettos to handguns. Late last year, astronauts on the International Space Station 3D-printed a replacement part; in January, a Chinese company 3D-printed a five-story apartment building; and NASA is studying the feasibility of using 3D printing to make food on long space explorations. You can even use a 3D printer to print a 3D printer. There is a specialized CoCoJet chocolate printer, professional-grade food printers, printers that print only with post-consumer waste, and affordable, certified-safe desktop printers for the home.

“As regards things you can do with a 3D printer, the technology enables creation of items in a whole host of materials, from ceramics to plastics, or paper to metals,” Ferguson said. “The only limit to the technology currently is the imagination of the creator.”



Given the predicted growth of the 3D-printing market (some estimates have it reaching $16.2 billion by 2018, and increasing 500 percent over the next five years), it’s not surprising that meetings and conventions dedicated to the technology are on the rise. “Globally,” Ferguson said, “there is a plethora of events focusing on 3D printing and additive manufacturing for both consumers and commercial organizations.”

This month alone, 3D-printing conferences and events will take place everywhere from Milan and Elkhart, Indiana, to Sao Paolo and Shanghai. Next month, Inside 3D Printing, one of the largest professional 3D-printing events in the world, will return to the Javits Center in New York City. Organized by New York–based MecklerMedia, the show has experienced steady growth since its 2013 launch and is capitalizing on that booming interest. This year, MecklerMedia will host 11 Inside 3D Printing shows around the world; total attendance is expected to hit 50,000, up from 20,000 in 2014.

London-based 3D Printshow, which calls itself “the first dedicated 3D printing event anywhere in the world,” is experiencing similar growth. The event, which is sponsored by Adobe and 3D-printing manufacturer Stratasys, debuted in 2012 in London; a year later, it expanded to Paris; and in 2014, organizers brought it to New York City as well. This year, 3D Printshow will take place in seven cities around the world, and total attendance is expected to top 20, 000, according to the event’s website.


3D printing is also upping its presence at existing technology conferences. There were 54 3D-printing exhibitors at this year’s CES, up from 27 in 2014, according to Dunion. And they expanded their footprint significantly, covering 18,000 net square feet, compared with 7,200 net square feet last year. “It’s certainly a growing and popular segment of our show floor,” Dunion said. “Last year, we had a defined but smaller area. We recognized that this is an area that is only going to grow in the consumer market. So we carved out more space, actively went out and recruited more exhibitors.” This year CES also offered a 3D-printing conference track, sponsored by TCT + Personalize, which produces publications and events that serve the 3D-printing industry.

CMP_3D_MarkerFaireMaker Faire, a quirky bicoastal show organized by Make magazine, is another event seeing an increase in the presence of 3D printing. Each year, “makers” (DIYers with a technology focus) submit projects for inclusion, then show and tell their inventions and designs to attendees at either Maker Faire Bay Area or Maker Faire New York. In 2014, the Bay Area show drew more than 130,000 attendees while the New York show had more than 90,000 attendees. The program is geared toward tech enthusiasts, engineers, tinkerers, and hobbyists — and 3D printing is right up their alley.

Indeed, the technology has been a presence at Maker Faire shows for years, according to Sherry Huss, Maker Faire co-creator and vice president of Maker Media. “We had a Cheez Whiz printer way back in 2007,” she said. At the most recent Bay Area show, held May 17–18, 2014, at the San Mateo Event Center, 13 percent of exhibits and presentations were related to 3D printing. Maker Faire New York, at the New York Hall of Science on Sept. 20–21, had a dedicated 3D Printing Village, and 22 percent of total exhibits and presentations were 3D-printing-related. “The amount of interest we get each year doubles,” Huss said. “We’ll give it as much of a footprint as interest demands.”

Because 3D printing is being used extensively — and with incredible results — in medicine, buttoned-up professional and scientific meetings are also starting to see 3D printing’s influence. At the American Heart Association’s 2014 Scientific Sessions, held Nov. 15–19 in Chicago, there were two presentations on 3D printing and its use for treatment of congenital heart disease. One session detailed how surgeons used an inexpensive plaster composite material to create 3D-printed heart models of three patients with complex congenital heart defects. After studying the models, surgeons were able to successfully repair severe heart abnormalities in all three patients. And this month, a poster session at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ Annual Meeting in Las Vegas will explore “Utilizing 3D Printing for Orthopaedic Innovation.”


While 3D printing is a growing component at the meetings and conventions of various sectors, it’s not yet widely utilized by the meetings industry itself. Neither MecklerMedia nor the Consumer Electronics Association, host of CES, uses 3D printing to organize or execute its events. “If we saw a crucial need to roll it out, we would,” CES’s Dunion said. “But that crucial application for our show has yet to present itself.”

Convene spoke with a number of other meeting professionals who also reported they weren’t using it. David Solsberry, executive design director at Hargrove Inc., the Lanham, Maryland–based general-services contractor and event-design firm, said he recently investigated purchasing a 3D printer, but decided it wasn’t yet worth the cost. (While desktop printers can be had for less than $1,000, industrial and professional-grade printers can cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.) “Fifteen years ago, 3D [models] of trade-show exhibits were quite popular because we didn’t have [digital] 3D renderings, but now we do,” Solsberry said. “To give a 3D model now would almost seem like moving backwards, because we can show animations and beautiful renderings. 3D printing simply creates a 3D plastic model.”

But some meeting professionals think that adds to the experience of creating an event. Freeman and GES, the industry’s largest general-services contractors, both are using 3D printing in show design. “We’ve had ours for a year or two, and it’s already changing the way we work with clients,” FreemanXP’s Tang said. “Previously, when we worked with event managers to design these amazing experiences, it was done on the computer. But nothing is better than tactile responses. As we build exhibit halls for clients, we will print out the model and let them move and place the pieces wherever they want. It increases the relationship we have with our clients.”

GES doesn’t yet own its own 3D printer, but “I’ve put in a request,” said Darren Pasdernick, GES’s executive creative director. And he predicts it won’t be long before GES has in-house capability; his team has already used the technology successfully. Recently, Pasdernick built an interactive exhibit-booth display that integrated 3D-printed models and touch-screen technology to deliver content. “It was very immersive, but people could also pick things up and move them around,” he said. “We could have gone to a traditional model maker, but it would have been really cost-prohibitive — two to three times more expensive than creating them with 3D printing.”

GES also recently used 3D printing to rapid-prototype a design feature it was creating for a client. “We were building a new wall panel for a client, but before we built it, we wanted to work out the kinks and get smart about how we wanted it to look before we actually built it,” Pasdernick said. So GES printed the entire thing in a plastic material with attributes similar to metal. “We were able to test multiple versions of it, figure out how it was going to work, and determine how it could work best.”


Tang and Pasdernick are early adopters, and admitted enthusiasts; but they’re not the only ones who see the potential of 3D printing for meetings and conventions —once the cost and the time involved come down, that is. “It could have some interesting impact in customized trinkets and takeaways,” said Michael Rogers, a technology consultant and speaker who calls himself “the Practical Futurist.” “Trinkets and takeaways are a big piece of event marketing. So maybe there will be a 3D printer that the convention center rents to you. Or maybe you bring one yourself that turns out some kind of cool, personalized object people can take away from the show.” In fact, according to Dunion, at CES this year, one of the more popular exhibit-hall giveaways was a superhero action figure with the attendee’s face 3D-printed onto it.

Tang also sees tchotchke potential, but not quite yet. “It takes about an hour or two to print a high-detailed miniature model,” he said. “When that gets down to few minutes, you’ll see a dramatic increase in personalized objects at events and meeting spaces.”

Once event organizers have the ability to print on site, it will allow them to respond very quickly to mishaps and missteps. “What happens quite often is, somebody will forget something, or a part will break, or you’ll notice that what we designed prior to the event simply doesn’t work,” Tang said. “That’s no longer going to be an issue once we have [3D] printers on site. If we’re missing a screw that’s going to hold a sign in place, we can just print it out.”

Once event organizers have the ability to print on site, it will allow them to respond very quickly to mishaps and missteps.

But it’s not all nuts-and-bolts and practicality. “When we design exhibits,” Pasdernick said, “we’re always trying to create cool, organic shapes. But then the shop comes back and says, how the heck are we going to build that?” he said. “With 3D printers, we’re going to be able to design whatever the heck we feel like, and they’ll just print it out. I think we’re going to see a lot more organic and exotic-looking shapes and designs as we move forward.”

Hargrove’s Solsberry also foresees using 3D printing to create highly customized, high-end design elements. “If you wanted to create something really unique and make a giant chandelier out of many small logos, you could pay somebody to do that, but it would be very expensive,” he said. “With a printer, you could take the client’s logo and print out a bunch of them to create a really unique installation. It will allow us to offer very customized features that right now are only available through boutique shops.”

3D printing might also have an impact off the show floor. Tang points to the potential ways it might be integrated into content. “People learn very differently when they can touch and feel something,” he said. “What if you could 3D-print a model of a jet engine, cut it in half, and show someone the inside, without having to cut an actual jet engine in half? That changes the whole learning experience.”

Maker Faire’s Huss says she can even see planners incorporating 3D printing into social events, tapping into people’s curiosity about the technology. “There’s a novelty in seeing how a printer works, and anything that can engage an audience, and get people talking and engaging with the environment is a good thing,” she said.


But even 3D printing’s most enthusiastic supporters say it’s unlikely to revolutionize the meetings industry — at least not all by itself. The real potential lies in layering 3D printing with virtual environments and other technologies to create truly unique, immersive experiences. “None of these things are mutually exclusive,” Tang said. “I don’t think any of these technologies are going to preclude one from the other.”

Pasdernick agrees. “The 10-by-10 popup will still exist,” he said, “but it will be augmented by more digital content, augmented reality, and 3D-printed objects all enhancing the experience.”

And no matter how elaborate the bells and whistles get — 3D-printed or otherwise — it won’t matter if your message doesn’t connect with attendees. “I get phone calls all the time asking, what’s the coolest thing out there?” Pasdernick said. “I think a lot of people get enamored with whatever is the latest thing. But you have to find a technology that fits. Start with what is the message you want attendees to walk away with, and then start figuring out the technology to deliver it.”

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Molly Brennan

Convene Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Illinois.