The 3D printer has come of age….well, almost. Let’s just say that after a tough hit from the recession, the 3D printer industry is back with a vengeance. Low-end sub-$1000 DIY projects to commercial prototyping printers that cost in the millions are finding more uses among a growing base of amateur and professional users alike. Prices are dropping, fabrication is easier, and interest is building as tech fans begin to explore the seemingly endless possibilities. While they aren’t a common household item yet, what does the future hold for 3D printers in say a decade from now? Things look very promising. In fact, 3D printers may become the new must-have gadget for artists, entrepreneurs, or anyone who needs a simple replacement part.
To prove that this is more than just a pipe dream, consider that the commercial industry reached $1.325 billion in 2010, according to a recent report by Wohlers Associates. This is up 24.1% from a weak 2009 that saw a 10% drop from 2008 numbers due to the recession. Since the beginning of the industry in 1988, the compound annual growth rate is 26.2%. Projections say that by 2020, the industry will almost quadruple to $5.2 billion. Now these numbers may have difficulty accounting for the other burgeoning arenas of the 3D printing world, including amateurs and hobbyists, or some of the related technologies based on very similar principles, like bio-printers that can print functional kidneys, for example. Still the numbers provide a good baseline upon which we can estimate the size of the market and its potential growth.
But to put all this progress into perspective, a little history is in order. The first 3D printer was produced by Charles Hull in 1984, who utilized a patented stereolithography method for the print process. The basic approach for 3D printing is to create a layer of polymer for the desired 2D slice, cure that area, and then repeat to build layer-upon-layer. Hull’s technique involved creating a 0.0025-inch layer of liquid photocurable polymer that could be cured with a UV laser. In 1988, the first commercially available 3D printer was officially launched by 3D Systems called SLA-250, which utilized a photo-optical acrylic resin. In the early 1990s, a number of other methods were developed, including fused deposition modeling that extruded thermoplastics for layering and multi-jet modeling, based on ink-jet printer technology. Techniques have also been developed that use powder and lasers. Over time, a multitude of companies across the world have sprung up offering their high-end printers combined with CAD software and scanners, allowing objects to be either scanned or designed from scratch.
So what are some uses for those high end machines? For designers, it allows incredibly accurate prototypes to be generated rapidly, cheaper, and in house. The marketing industry, which often outsources prototypes, can also benefit from similar rapid prototyping technology to create high quality, focus group models or pre-production sales demos. Engineers are using them to generate durable, high precision parts, such as the Boeing Phantom Ray unmanned stealth vehicle, which has 3D fabricated parts. One company, i.materialise, is even fabricating objects out of titanium. Even mid-range printers are coming into demand, such as Dimension’s uPrint 3D printer, which starts at around $15,000 and produces objects that are 40% stronger than previously obtainable.
One of the most fascinating developments with the additive fabrication technology is how it is transforming the world of art. At the recent RAPID 2011 additive manufacturing conference (videos are here), a variety of contemporary art made from 3D printing were on display. You can check out the gallery here.
While the expensive 3D printers are out of reach for the average person, enormous strides have made 3D printing even more accessible to all. As with many other technologies, we have the DIY community to thank for it. Low-end devices, such as MakerBot, RepRap, eMaker, PP3DP, and the new micro3D printer, are pushing the low end barrier from $650 to $1,800. RepRap and its variants are notable because RepRap is an open-source project, and designers contribute their CAD files openly, allowing others to print with them or even modify the designs. But the bottom line is that many enthusiasts are pushing the technology into new areas, finding cheaper ways of doing things, and showcasing all that they can imagine. Because commercial 3D printers are continually dropping in price as demand increases, it is only a matter of time before a company is able to undersell these DIY devices, which is good for everyone.
One of the most exciting things about emergent technology is personal empowerment. Take Apple’s iPad — it is a personal technological tool that can be used by everyone from artists finding new ways of expressing themselves to doctors trying to save a patient’s life and at the same time, be incredibly practical for reading blogs or online banking. 3D printing offers something akin to this broad versatility and immense practicality. It allows anyone to make their ideas into real physical objects.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are an entrepreneur that has come up with a very simple widget. You’ve designed it and now you want to sell it. One route is to contact a manufacturer, order units in the thousands, store the goods, and then set up a shop on the internet to push your inventory. Another route is to obtain a 3D printer and print on-demand widgets from eBay sales or an online store. This route saves time, money, and provides the versatility to customize your design or tweak it without losing inventory. The potential to turn your own home into a manufacturing facility exists today, so imagine what 10 years of growth in this industry will produce.
Clearly, a lot of excitement is building about 3D printers. Stories of interesting fabs are attracting media, such as the man who printed out a replacement house key. As the technology becomes smaller, more affordable and easier to use, the barrier to entry will ultimately drop and many people will find themselves with their very own 3D printer. Whether it sits to collect dust like their exercise equipment or they become the next success story is completely up to them and their creativity.