Every week seems to bring a new story about a cool new 3D printer hack or another discussion (like this Innovators @ Google talk from two of the guys behind the Makerbot 3D Printer) about how the 3D printing revolution has begun. But what's really going on with 3D printers? Where is this nascent industry going?
An exact description of 3D printing is somewhat elusive because several methods may be used; but most 3D printers stack thin layers of material to form a 3D object in much the same way that a dot-matrix printer creates an image on a page. Though the process has been around since the early 1990s, it had a relatively low profile until recently. In part this was due to the five- or six-figure prices that early 3D printers commanded, and in part it reflected the relatively low quality of the objects the printers produced.
But in the past few years, the prices of 3D printing systems have dropped to a more reasonable level: $1000 to $3000 is the normal range, with the cheapest model, MakerBot's Cupcake CNC, tagged at just $650). The printers' greater affordability, along with the increased number of options available for home 3D printing kits, has helped take 3D printing out of specialized industrial use and put it into the hands of geeks and hackers across the country. At the same time, hackers are coming up with components to make the printing process more precise.
But what will it take for 3D printing to make the leap from hacker spaces and geek garages to average homes? A continued reduction in prices, for one thing. Jeff Lipton, the head of Cornell's Fab@Home 3D Printing project says that prices are likely to sink further as 3D printers follow the same path that the personal computer took in its transition from hacker hobby to major tech industry. "The personal computer revolution moved computers from integrated machines to a combination of standardized components made by dozens of manufacturers," Lipton says. "We need the field to start moving in that direction."
Coming Soon to Consumers?
But 3D printers need a little more than they now offer to cross over to the average consumer, says Keith Kmetz, a printer expert for IDC. "Right now, I don't see the 'ah-ha' application that's going to drive lots of adoption, but kind of a 'gee...that's interesting/cool/neat' response from the market right now." So 3D printing is still looking for its killer app: an idea with broad enough appeal to capture the attention of the masses. Luckily a few interesting prospects are already on the table.
The first and most obvious of these is that the hacker movement responsible for bringing 3D printing to the fore in recent years by lowering prices and offering home 3D printing kits will continue to expand, bringing 3D printing to an ever-growing segment of the population. This seems to be the direction of the MakerBot Industries team, as evidenced by the company's relatively low-cost 3D Printer kits. In addition to its entry-level Cupcake CNC machine, Makerbot has produced a more-powerful Thing-o-Matic model, which costs just over a grand and allows the user to print larger and more accurate 3D objects than the Cupcake CNC does.
But rather than just resting content with the relatively low cost of its kits, the Makerbot team has also started Thingiverse, a site for sharing useful 3D-printable designs. The site already offers tons of useful designs for downloading and printing out on a Makerbot or other 3D printer. The designs range from a printable pair of glasses to a printable mini Rubix cube to printable replacement parts and upgrades for the 3D printers themselves.
One of the chief limitations of the Makerbot--and most other home 3D printers on the market--involves the materials they require for printing. Though 3D printing methods permit 3D printing of dozens of different types of materials, ramging from metals to ceramics, 3D printing at home rarely uses anything but plastics. Qualities such as pliability and a low melting point make plastic a great 3D printing material, but those same qualities make it unsuitable for such end products as a hammer a microwave-safe plate.
The technologies required for nonplastic 3D printing remain out of the reach of average consumers, but various online services have popped up in recent years offering 3D printing of 3D models of anything you upload to them, in various materials. One of the most prominent of these services is Shapeways, a 3D printing service launched in 2008. In addition to plastics, Shapeways provides 3D printing of models in steel, sandstone, and glass and recently added an option to print your designs in silver. After producing the printed 3D object, Shapeways mails it to you.
These personal fabrication services have been growing increasingly elaborate. Recently Ponoko, a company that previously specialized in laser cutting, launched a 3D printing service that prints in multiple materials and also now offers to integrate electronics into your 3D printed objects. It bills its service as the Ponoko Personal Factory, a boutique manufacturing operation for creating made-to-order electronics.
No material is suitable for every purpose, and some objects need more than one kind of material. Ideally, 3D printers would be able to work with multiple materials simultaneously, so they could create complex objects without requiring any separate construction. In fact, multimaterial printers already exist--the Connex family from Objet, for example--but they are currently restricted to the commercial sector and are extremely expensive.
Killer App Needed
Of course, multimaterial printing needn't remain beyond the budgets of home users forever. Lipton and the fab@home project are working to bring multimaterial printing into the home, but he doesn't think that this development will serve as the industry's killer app. Instead, Lipton sees mainstream access to multimaterial printing as being comparable to the development of integrated processors for personal computers.
"Just as the integrated processor was needed before personal computing was feasible, multimaterial printing is going to enable the killer app," Lipton says. " If you look at personal computing, the killer app was video games, and no one could have predicted that from the processor.
He continues: "Everyone knows that you will own one or more personal fabricators, but no one knows what you will use them for. You only find out the killer app once the machine is in enough hands and people start doing cool and weird things that experts would never have predicted."
Lipton suggests that food printing or using 3D printing in the classroom as possibilities, but it may also be that 3D printing's killer app isn't even on our collective radar yet.
For an overview of concept printers ranging from advanced paper-and-ink designs to a food printer to a mind-boggling magnesium-dust-based 3D building printer, see "15 Amazing Concept Printers."