What is the future of 3D printing?
The technology for 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has existed in some form since the 1980s. However, the technology has not been capable enough or cost-effective for most end-product or high-volume commercial manufacturing. Expectations are running high that these shortcomings are about to change. Several technology trends are feeding these expectations. An emerging class of mid-level 3-D printers is starting to offer many highend system features in a desktop form factor at lower price points. Printer speeds are increasing across the product spectrum; at least one high-end system under development could print up to 500 times faster than today’s top machines. And key patents are about to expire, a development likely to hasten the pace of innovation. A wide range of commercial 3D printers for industrial application are now available from a range of manufactuers, the two largest of whom are 3D Systems (which works with most technologies and is rapidly acquiring many smaller manufacturers) and Stratasys (which offers FDM and polyjet matrix harware, as well as special 'drop on demand' wax 3D printers for dental work). Both of these companies had a market capitalization at the end of 2012 of over $3 billion. Other large 3D printer manufactuers that are publically traded are Archam (which produces electron beam melting (EMB) machines), the aforementioned ExOne with their metal and sand binder jetting 3D printers, and Organovo, who specialize in bioprinting. Other large but private 3D printer manufacturers of note include EnvisionTEC (who specialize in DLP projection hardware but also make a 'bioplotter' for tissue engineering), EOS (who make selective laser sintering devices for producing objects in metals or sand), Voxeljet (who make really large printers for binder jetting in sand or plastic powders), SLM Solutions (who specialize in selective laser melting), and Optomec (who produce directed energy deposition printers using their own 'laser engineered net shaping' (LENS) technology). You can find information on these and other industrial 3D printing manufactuers in my 3D Printing Directory. Prices for most commercial/industrial 3D printers tend to start in the ten-to-twenty thousand dollar bracket and spiral upwards into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for very-high-end machines that can build fully-dense metal parts. Although some desktop models are on the market, most commercial 3D printers are usually fairly bulky and often floor-standing. The above prices noted, it is already possible for lone designers and private individuals to obtain quality 3D printouts from high-end 3D printing hardware by using an online bureau. For example, Shapeways, iMaterialize and Sculpteo allow anybody to upload their 3D computers models to have their designs 3D printed and marketed online. More information on a wider range of 3D printing services can also be obtained from my 3D Printing Directory.