In 2015, we saw big advances in the quality, speed, and abilities of 3D printers. Although they have not quite become mainstream yet, it seems inevitable that new technology in 3D printing will lead us to produce products from prescription drugs to food to new homes. To learn more about what we've seen, and what's to come, TechRepublic spoke to Pete Basiliere, Research Director, Imaging and Print Services for Gartner, for his take on what's happening in 3D printing.
How has 3D printing improved over the last year?
It can be seen in the throughput of printers, the quality of the finished product, and the range of materials. For enterprise 3D printers, more effort is being put into quality assurance tools that integrate into the printer itself, so the operator can be assured of the quality as the part is being made.
What is stereolithography, and why do you predict it will become increasingly important in 2016?
Stereolithography, or SLA, is a type of additive manufacturing using layering. The technology was invented 30 years ago by Charles Hull, the founder of 3D systems. We are forecasting very strong growth in stereolithography. Our compound annual growth rate for SLA from 2015-2019 is 85.5 %. A lot of the growth comes in 2017, '18, '19, when we'll be seeing the doubling of shipments. Carbon3D, which uses stereolithography (SLA), was announced three months ago.
What about composite printing, using multiple materials?
It's been one of the initiatives around 3D technology, along with improving the throughput, the quality, the range of materials, and the size of the output. We do have the ability to print multiple materials with extrusion technology. MarkForged, in Boston, enables printing of a plastic-like nylon and fiberglass, carbon fiber. Voxel8 enables extrusion of a plastic like an ABS and conductive metal material as well. Those are the products that are on the market already. So while there may not be multiple materials, there are absolutely initiatives along those lines. Stratasys is a company that has the ability to print multiple colors of the same materials using jetting technology.
What about colors? Are 3D printers getting better at that?
Most of the technologies print in one color. There are a couple of exceptions. One is binder jetting, a technology developed by MIT and first commercialized by Z Corporation, a company that was subsequently acquired by 3D Systems. Binder jetting technology is basically laying down a light plaster material and jet it as if it was a piece of paper. That binder ink that is jetted has colors in it. It's like printing a piece of paper. So you have additive color capabilities.
If you've seen 3D figurines, whether it's a bride and groom or a sports player, they're generally printed with that technology. There's a Japanese company called Mimaki Engineering using that technology and has brighter colors than what's available now. Another company called MCOR technologies, based in Ireland, prints 3D with paper. The paper's actually printed as the paper is fed into the device. The brightest most vibrant colors are available with MCOR's technology.
Has the price point changed much over the last year? Will 3D printing become more affordable?
We have to distinguish between enterprise and consumer printers. In the consumer market, there are numerous, tens of hundreds of manufacturers of 3D printers worldwide that are trying to sell printers to consumers costing under $1000. Companies are aggressively lowering the price point for those devices. In the enterprise realm, I don't see as much of a price decline as the improvements in quality. Rather than reducing the cost of the printer, they're adding value to that printer via throughput, materials, better quality. In the enterprise field, you may see lower cost entry level machines come into the market, but we won't see a significant decline in price because there are improvements in quality, performance, and range of materials.
What are the most innovative 3D printing companies today?
MarkForge and Voxel8, startup companies, are definitely innovators. It's a tough question. There are companies, along with research institutions and laboratories, that are innovating at every level, so it's hard to say whether one is more innovative than another. But companies like MarkForge, Voxel8, and Carbon3D who are pushing the envelope, absolutely—and they're also startups.
What do you see for the future of 3D printing? What's are you most excited about?
The most exciting thing I'm seeing is the rapid advance in metal 3D printing where we take a powdered 3D metal and are using that to do more than prototyping, to do a wider range of finished goods. With that potential comes the challenge of making sure that a part can perform well when it's made with 3D printing, hence the interest in quality assurance tools. With metals comes the ability to do more medical implants than we have today. While there are some very complex parts and it can be labor and cost-intensive to produce with traditional technologies, used by the aerospace, automotive, and a wide range of other industries, oil and gas and so forth. So with those advances come the need of—not only improvements in the technology and quality assurance—but also comes a need for designers and engineers who are trained in additive manufacturing and know the design for building layer on layer and learn about the capabilities of the different devices. So we need to have more and more people coming out of school and the military that are versed in designing for 3D printing.
What's the coolest thing a 3D printer can make?
Personally, the most exciting part of 3D printing is in medical devices. It's absolutely life-altering. Things like hip implants, dental implants, hearing aids. But we're also seeing, in the realm of bioprinting, dissolvable materials that are already printed and put into month-old children in order to overcome an issue the child was born with.
The other component is prosthetics. While 3D printing offers opportunities to improve prosthetic devices, one of the greatest and most exciting parts is when we take a low-cost 3D printer that may only print with material extrusion, that printer is taken to a less-developed country, and there, people who have had no access to prostheses now can have inexpensive prosthetic limbs made for them with very inexpensive 3D printer. [Read more about that in this TechRepublic article. ] I wear 3D printed hearing aid shells. So for me, medical devices are the most exciting and life-altering benefit and opportunity for 3D printing.
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.