Hardware

10 facts on 3D printing: Understanding tech's next big game-changer

As 3D printers are become more affordable and versatile, they are destined to disrupt multiple industries. Here's what you need to know about this quickly accelerating technology.

 
makerbot replicator 2.jpg
The MakerBot Replicator 2 enables users to make big objects, up to 410 cubic inches. It was released in 2012 and was designed for the desktop of an engineer, researcher, or creative professional.
 Image: MakerBot
 The world of 3D printing is exciting. With more affordable machines, creative entrepreneurs, innovative startups, and new materials, the industry is rapidly evolving.

Since the invention of the 3D printer in 1983 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems, companies have popped up all over the globe, attempting to make the most innovative machine. Here are 10 reasons why 3D printing matters—maybe you'll decide the equipment is a worthy investment, or maybe you'll just be convinced this futuristic technology will one day have a place in your business or home.

SEE: Photos: 3D printers and the amazing and quirky things they make

1. 3D printing is a key industry to watch in 2014

Enthusiasm is high, and so is the market for 3D printing in both consumer and enterprise space. According to Gartner research, printers under $100,000 were expected to grow almost 50 percent in 2013, and will increase 75 percent this year. Right now, enterprises are using the printers to prototype objects, but we'll see an increasing amount used to make product designs this year.

SEE: 3D printing: A primer for business and technology professionals

2. 3D printers are empowering "makers"

Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired, wrote in his book, Makers, that a new industrial revolution is underway because of open source design and 3D printing. Many entrepreneurs are using micro-manufacturing to create smaller batches of customized products. And with crowdfunding sites, they don't have to rely on venture capitalists to fund these endeavors.

3. Customization is the next step in 3D printing technology

Soon enough the question won't be how we will print things, but what we will print. Customization is the next buzzword in the industry, according to Pete Basiliere, lead Gartner analyst for 3D printing. Replacement parts, toys, and random designs and schemiatics found on the internet can all be customized to fit consumer needs. Because the machines can print one piece at a time, this can be done relatively easily. Shapeways, for instance, is a website where customers can connect with designers and order customized products such as jewelry and home decor.

4. There are several types of 3D printing technologies

  • Fused deposition modeling: MakerBot is one of the best examples of this technology. These printers melt a plastic filament and deposit the plastic in layers until it fills up the model. There are two types of plastic, both of which MakerBot uses: ABS, which is sturdy and made from oil-based resources, and PLA, which is biodegradable and made from plant-based resources.

  • Stereolithography: These machines use a laser to cure a resin and build the prototype one layer at a time. Rapid prototyping, another form, doesn't use supports to hold up the part so that it can be built faster, but in basic stereolithography, the supports must be manually removed from the part.

  • Selective laser sintering: Lasers are used to sinter powdered metal, binding the powder together to create a solid structure. After each layer is sintered together, the structure drops and the next layer is built on top of it.

5. People are making all kinds of things with 3D printers

Check out Makerbot's Thingiverse—the things people create with 3D printers are extraordinarily creative. It's a community for makers where they can upload digital designs or photos of objects they have made with 3D printers. The website has more than 100,000 models and that number is growing every day. From Storm Trooper pen cups to household planters to customizable necklaces, the options of objects people can make are seemingly endless.

6. Ethical dilemmas of 3D printing will be a growing conversation

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A Robohand was created with the MakerBot to avoid the expense of traditional prosthetics.
 Image: MakerBot
 Get ready for it—the next great debate will be about the political, ethical, and religious questions 3D printing technologies raise. This is particularly important for bioprinting, which is already accelerating at an alarming rate. Scientists at Cornell University successfully printed a human ear last year, and scientists in Scotland are developing a way to print embryonic stem cells.

Another issue is weapons. In 2012,a man 3D-printed a gun and shared the blueprints on his website (they garnered 100,000 downloads in the two days before the U.S. State Department took them down). He successfully fired it last year, landing himself onWired's list of deadliest people on the planet.

7. Lower prices will drive consumer adoption

As smaller companies make their own 3D printers or crowdfund them, the prices are going to continue to drop. Already, Makerbot's smallest printer—which will begin shipping this spring— is available for $1,375. That still seems pricy for a lot of us, but it's quite affordable for the technology.

"Of course you're always going to have a people particularly invested in the technology who will have the means to spend the money [on their own printer]," Basiliere said. "But as prices come down some more and consumers start to buy them, that number of dedicated consumers will continue to grow."

The prices for larger machines used in manufacturing enterprises are not lowering as quickly, he added, but they will improve in performance and enhancements to more rapidly and efficiently produce parts.

SEE: 10 industries 3D printing will disrupt or decimate

8. HP is going to get in the game at some point

The 3D printing leaders are making themselves known, but there's an elephant in the room: when will HP join the ranks and produce this technology for the mass market? The traditional printing giant has a five-foot-tall 3D printing prototype in the basement of its Palo Alto research lab, and the company said they plan to release a product this year.

"3D printing is in its infancy," CEO Meg Whitman said at a tech conference in Bangkok last October. "It's a big opportunity and we are all over it. We will have something by the middle of next year."

9. 3D printing is going to completely revolutionize manufacturing as we know it

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The Cube is a home 3D printer marketed to use to make toys and other small objects.
 Image: Cube
 Open source electronics allow companies to iterate designs and experiment with schematics and product parts. Eventually, they won't need to design every piece in-house and they won't need to ship every part because local or regional makers can design and/or print the parts themselves. Big supply chains will be a thing of the past.

Most companies aren't grasping this technology yet because it's going to change the industry so dramatically. According to Basiliere, the key to long-term growth in the manufacturing industry is the number of materials 3D printers can use, which is small but growing quickly as well.

10. 3D printing is going to cause disruption in many industries

We know 3D printing will upheave mass manufacturers, but what else will the technology affect?

Well, just about everything. Educators can print tools or designs in schools. Artists will have a new medium to work with. Healthcare providers can quickly create what they need in-house. Parents will be able to replace toys or broken household items in a matter of hours.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability, leadership, and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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