When it comes to 3D printing, the theme of 2015 is simple: make it useful. The last couple years has been exciting for fans of the technology and people in the industry, as it has developed so rapidly it has been hard to keep up with.
Problem with it was, businesses and consumers still had little reason to invest in 3D printers. Desktop printers are still novelties, mostly used to make silly toys and gadget accessories. Food printers are fascinating, but they're still like something out of Star Trek, is still a distant dream from being in every kitchen. Bioprinters are amazing feats of technology, but having them in hospitals is still years away.
At CES this year, we still saw a lot of that hype, but there was also a lot of evidence to prove that 3D printing is a smart investment. The technology is democratizing every industry, allowing people at home — and at work — to customize and create their own products. And because of new materials, better software, and more developed companies, the technology is starting to become more realistic.
Based on what we saw at CES, these are the trends to watch in 3D printing this year.
1. Simpler design software
Almost every 3D printing vendor at CES was showing off their software platform. Through the end of 2014, the main hurdle 3D printing needed to jump to become mainstream was CAD software. The learning curve is just too steep for most people. It's made for engineers. This year, though, many different companies are making solutions for that. A part of those solutions are scanners that can take any object and turn it into a 3D design.
For instance, Matter and Form is a crowdfunded portable scanner that allows designs to be uploaded to any desktop 3D printer model. The company, which is only about a year and a half old, is also launching Cashew 3D, their version of an open source platform for 3D designs. Unlike Thingiverse, the most popular maker platform, Cashew will use 3D imaging and also be mobile friendly. It's set to launch this spring.
2. More materials
To kick off CES, MakerBot announced it will offer spools of PLA composite materials like wood, stone, and metal, starting this year. 3D Systems is also offering a nylon filament for its desktop 3D printers, and other startups are using carbon fiber and experimenting with metal, ceramic, and more.
The fact that most desktop printers only worked with plastic filament made it seem like home 3D printing was just a novelty — all for printing fun toys. With the advent of new materials for home printing, the technology actually will become more useful and reach a broader audience beyond makers and hobbyists. With better materials, people can print spare parts, customize things, and create more useful objects.
3. Focusing on small businesses
Since its invention 30 years ago, 3D printing has been mainly used for manufacturing processes. Those 3D printers are giant, and cost thousands of dollars. The other side of 3D printing — the side that went gangbusters in 2014 — is small, compact desktop 3D printers.
What was missing was a reason for businesses to use them, and mainly businesses that don't have a need for extraordinarily expensive professional printers, but want to print parts for products or do rapid prototyping.
This year will be telling for 3D printing as the technology is targeted toward small businesses. Companies like Ultimaker are aiming certain models toward a workplace setting, and new materials to print products with offers a better incentive to make an investment in a printer.
If businesses don't want to buy their own printer, service bureaus will also be an option. UPS is already offering on-site 3D printing, and we expect that trend to continue to grow in 2015. According to 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental, service bureaus and home/business printing don't have to be at odds. In fact, he said, he sees plenty of room for both to grow this year.
4. Making wearables more wearable
Wearables and 3D printing rose at a similar rate in 2014, and both were major draws at CES this year. The main complaint about wearables — especially for women — is that they are bulky and sometimes just downright ugly. And that's where 3D printing comes in. Home desktop printers and services like Shapeways are an ideal way to customize wearables and turn them into fashionable pieces of jewelry or accessories. 3D Systems, for instance, is really promoting this high-fashion, high-tech side of 3D printing by offering partnerships with designers and artists to create unique 3D designs and pieces.
Both wearables and 3D printing are becoming even more popular with the average consumer and more therefore more useful in everyday life, and this year, it will be interesting to see how people use them in conjunction with one another.
5. 3D printing in the classroom
This year at CES, several companies talked about their plans to take 3D printing into the classroom. MakerBot, for example, is putting a lot of resources into its Innovation Centers, which are facilities at universities where there are 30 to 100 MakerBot Replicators and scanners. The company is working with universities to educate students on the design process and potential with the technology to start to create courses that utilize 3D printing.
Another example we saw was the 3Doodler, a crowdfunded 3D printer pen that draws in the air. The company is on its second generation pen (which is much sleeker and more intuitive than the first one) and is aiming a new Kickstarter campaign toward classrooms that want to teach more STEM subjects.
Taking 3D printing to the classroom in grade school will continue to be important because it's an easy way to integrate STEM subjects into the curriculum while offering another artistic outlet. At the collegiate level, 3D printing labs offer another entry point into engineering and design, which will be critical in the years to come as the demand for STEM jobs increases.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.