Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) may finally have its moment. The technology has been around for decades, but only recently has it managed to crawl out from behind the curtains of advanced industrial production and bearded basement hobbyists into the awareness of the general public.
This year saw 3D printing get a nationally-televised shout-out in the State of the Union as well as the launch of the Inside 3D Printing conference and expo in New York City, the first business and consumer conference specifically built around this budding industry.
While some analysts have made predictions that 3D printers may dip below $2000 by 2016, the Inside 3D Printing conference featured models that are currently available for less than $1000, even. (One such model has been around for a year.) 3D printing may be on its way to becoming a desktop staple.
3D Printers: The desktop scanner of the coming decade
One of the conference's keynote speakers, industry consultant Terry Wohlers, used his stage time to explain why he is very bullish on the technology's future, noting that in 2011 (the last year for which reliable data is available), the industry grew by an impressive 29.4 percent.
Wohlers estimates that there are 2.9 million industrial designs for printed parts currently being used by a few high-end manufacturers. But that number pales compared to the 12 million consumer-printable designs available on sites like Thingiverse, which offers a bevy of downloadable designs submitted by the public. Of course, most of these millions of designs are being created and shared by a small population of dedicated hobbyists.
But this may start to change in the very near future.
As you'll see below, the prices of several consumer models of 3D printers are comparable to those of high-end computers. While the average person will have little need for a 3D printer--for now, they are limited in the materials they can employ, and they can take hours to print an object the size of a chess piece--certain specialized professions will find lots of uses for them.
In the very near future, a desktop 3D printer may be greeted in the same way the desktop scanner was in our recent technological past: It's not a piece of technology that all consumers will use, but it is something few would find out of place on someone else's desk.
Here are a number of consumer 3D printers coming your way:
The Form 1 ($3300)
For the high-end designer, artist, or architect, Formlabs' Form 1 stereolithograph printer offers a $3300 desktop unit. This is an impressively high-resolution model that can render details down to 25 microns (or 0.001 inches).
Unlike many other desktop 3D models, the Form 1 uses a light-sensitive resin that "freezes" in place when it comes into contact with a laser, which builds its creations from the bottom up, line by line.
Currently the printer can only render monochromatic creations via a house-made clear resin, though the company promises to offer new colors soon.
UP! Mini and UP! Plus+ ($999 and $1549)
Xobject is the North American distributor for the UP! Mini and UP! Plus+ 3D printers, which can be purchased for $999 and $1549 respectively.
The UP! models are traditional FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling; sometimes referred to as "FFF" or "Fused Filament Fabrication") printers that render objects using either petrolium-based ABS or corn-derived PLA plastics.
Neither the Mini nor the Plus can match the Form 1's detailing capabilities, but they can still render details down to, respectively, 200 and 150 microns. Keep in mind that 200 microns is a fifth of a millimeter, so the detailing is still very impressive.
Sculpteo rapid-prototyping service
The expo also included firms with new business plans built around 3D printing, such as Sculpteo, a French company that allows users to create highly technical objects remotely, objects the company then renders on its premises and ships back to the consumer.
While part of the company's model is built around "rapid prototyping" for creative folks, Sculpteo is also moving into highly specified consumer rendering such as its 3D Printed Case app (available free on iTunes); this app lets users create intricate and personalized smartphone cases, which the company will render and ship for around $25.
Click the next page to see even more affordable 3D printers.
Mbot ($999 to $1199)
China-based Mbot offers a personal 3D printer starting at $999 as well as a slightly larger (and more stylishly designed) transparent version for only $1199.
The Mbot is an FDM model that can print in two colors and uses ABS plastic.
Mcor Technologies rapid-prototype services
Mcor Technologies is another rapid-prototype service, but its full-color rendering technology uses plain ol' printer paper as a medium. Each sheet of paper is sliced by a blade and sealed to the previous layer by a water-based adhesive. Ink is then added layer by layer to render full-color objects.
At present, the company does not offer a consumer desktop model. However, it has just inked a deal with Staples to allow users to upload designs and pick up the resulting products at a local Staples outlet. For now, the project is being tested in northern Europe, but it may expand beyond that.
Makerbot Replicator ($2200 to $2800)
Makerbot is one of the biggest names in 3D printing. The company used the expo to show off its stylishly designed Replicator and Replicator 2 models, which sell for $2200 and $2800, respectively.
The Replicator 2 utilizes PLA filaments, while the Replicator uses ABS.
Cubify Cube and CubeX ($1299 and $2499)
Cubify, one of the oldest names in 3D printing, now offers one of the most versatile models. The company's Cube and CubeX printers sell for $1299 and $2499, respectively, and can use both ABS and PLA plastics.
The CubeX is able to print in three colors and can render an object the size of a globe or basketball.
Solidoodle ($499 to $799)
Brooklyn's Solidoodle has the most affordable model with a fully assembled printer available for only $499 for the Solidoodle 2. However, more advanced models run upwards of $799.
All sales are handled through the site and built to order with a lead time of four to eight weeks.
Makergear ($1475 to $1750)
Ohio's Makergear offers a DIY approach to 3D printing and offers a fully assembled model for $1750 (or $1475 for a kit that you assemble yourself). The printer will work with either ABS or PLA plastics, but can render only with one color at a time.
The future is now-ish
Today, you can purchase a new desktop 3D printer for about the same cost as a high-end tablet or laptop (or even a midrange one in some cases). This may be the year we begin seeing 3D printers making their way onto desktops around the country.
As of now, the consumer 3D industry is too small for the Googles and Apples of the world to take notice. And that is exactly why it's so exciting. This is a brand-new industry with no breakout stars and no foregone conclusions.
The crown is there for the taking.