3D printing technology is becoming more ubiquitous by the day thanks to regular releases of new, cheaper and simpler printers.
What was once a novel market is beginning to poke out of its niche, though the tech certainly hasn't gained widespread adoption. Still, is 3D printing becoming a buyers market?
The short answer is yes. Throughout 2013 we saw an explosion of new 3D printers, some of which reached their lowest price points yet, such as the $199 (about £121/AU$217) QU-BD OneUp 3D. Admittedly, some assembly is required, but at a budget offering is certainly a sign of growing choice (and broader market reach) for the machinery.
With a sizeable contingent of more affordable next-gen printers launching with the help of resources like Kickstarter, 3D printing is beginning to take a plunge in the mainstream consumer market. There's still a long way to go before we're all printing whatever item we need from the comfort of home, but the groundwork is certainly lain for next year and beyond to see a boom in 3D printing.
In stores now
In the last year alone, MakerBot Replicator 2 machines found themselves on sale in Microsoft retail stores with Windows 8.1 support to boot. Staples, meanwhile, started carrying 3D Systems' Cube 3D printers in May.
One of the latest printers to join the big box store circuit was the Solidoodle 4, which is one of the few fully assembled 3D printers available for $999 (about £607/AU$1,092) at Micro Centers around the US. To help get a sense of the challenges of bringing 3D printers to retail, we spoke with Solidoodle's CEO and Founder Sam Cervantes.
Cervantes said the Solidoodle 4 was made to be a retail evolution of the company's last printer, which produced 8-inch-squared parts with the same 0.1mm resolution as the MakerBot Replicator 2. What has changed is the outer casing - now it has it's finished with a plastic exterior.
It's a small difference, but it makes the printer look more like a mini refrigerator that belong in the home than an out-of-place steel cube.
"We want to make a machine with a clean, finished appearance and an easy-to-use product," Cervantes explained. Beyond looks, the Solidoodle 4 is also more user friendly.
"The Solidoodle 4 is usable with no tools required. Previously, you had to use a screwdriver to set the first layer height [the starting layer of the print], but now we've included a thumbwheel that's accessible from the outside. You don't have to open the machine and use a tool."
Easy on the eyes and not a lot of brains
Beyond the availability of affordable, accessible and user-friendly machines, one of the largest barriers to 3D printing has always been the steep learning curve of sending designs to the printer.
Cervantes said that the hardware is just one component; he and this team at Solidoodle have worked hard to create a series of one-click software for Macs, Windows and Linux to get its printers up and running within a few hours.
"After you install the software you open the STL file and slice it just a couple of clicks and warm up your printer," Cervantes explained. "Once you're familiar with the whole process to go from turning on your printer and warming it up, it usually takes about five minutes, and most of that is warm up time."
"It's easier than ever before to purchase a printer and start creating right away - your own 3D designs or the ones you find online," he continued.
3D printing is actually a decades old technology that's existed since the 1980s but primarily was only accessible to the manufacturing sector and community of tinkerers, such as the RepRap project.
Along with the development of consumer priced printers that can sit on top of someone's desk, manufactuerers have strived to simplify the entire 3D model design process.
For those without AutoCad knowhow or expertise in creating their own STL files (the 3D blueprint used by 3D printers), there are cloud services such as MakerBot's Thingiverse and 3D System's Cubify to let you pick out designs by other makers. Object replication is also quickly becoming a simple matter thanks to consumer targeted 3D scanners like the Digitizer and Sense.
Catching fire at CES
At CES 2014 in early next month, 3D printing could see another injection of innovation - this will be the first year with a TechZone devoted entirely to the technology.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs the show, there will be no less than 28 manufacturers displaying their 3D wares. There will be a number of big name printer makers like higher resolution firm FormLabs, the paper printing Mcor Technologies, and MakerBot, which is also host a keynote.
"There's all the top names from this nascent industry at this TechZone and giving demos on a variety of applications from general use products, but also showing prototypes for medical use, engineering [and] automotive," CEA's Director of Industry Analysis Steve Koenig told us. "It's going to be a pretty hot area for this coming show."
Just like nearly every bit of tech before it, Koenig said the key to 3D printing finding its way into consumers' homes is its price. In order for cheaper printers to happen there has to be competition, which is exactly what CEA expects to see at CES and beyond.
"Within a couple of years 3D printers will be well under $1,000 (about £612/AU$1,112) and that will enable people to create a variety of things from Christmas ornaments to cell phone cases, or missing furniture pieces," Koenig theorized.
Koenig noted that consumer awareness of the technology is still budding. As of late, 3D printing is getting more play in the news whether it be the controversy of 3D printed hand guns, plans for 3D printed phones, or HP joining the fray.
"I think we're only now just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the applications of this technology, and once it really gets out there into the consumer space, which is beginning to happen, that's where the real innovation is going to come from."
A burgeoning market
Koenig also dropped a number of figures numbers from CEA's various forecasts that support the growing trend of consumer 3D printing.
The CEA accounts that there were 63,000 consumer-use 3D printers sold in the last year, grossing an estimated $87 million (about £52.9m/AU$95.1m) worldwide.
In 2014 the association expects 3D printer sales to increase by 44% to 91,000 units, amassing a 41% revenue spike for a total year's earnings of $123 million (about £74.8m/AU$134.5m).
The US holds the lion's share of the 3D printing market with 41,000 printers. That number is expected to increase to 60,000 next year. US revenues for 3D printers meanwhile were estimated around $52 million (about £31.6m/AU$56.8m) with an expected rise to $74 million (about £45m/AU$80.9m).
The CEA also gave us records for 2012 that places 38,000 3D printers sold worldwide, 25,000 in the US alone, and $54 million (about £32.8m/AU$59m) grossed worldwide with $32 million (about £19.4m/AU$35m) in the US.
After 2014, things are only looking up for the advanced fabrication world when it's predicted the market will skyrocket to 250,000 units and $330 million (about £200.7m/AU$361m) in revenue worldwide.
Koenig was sure to note that these numbers only account for the consumer, home, and small business-use market.
"Down the line I can envision more models being wrapped around this technology," Koenig continued. "We already have kiosks at the pet store that laser engrave dog tags, so why not put a 3D printing kiosk at wireless retailers that will while you're filling out paper work for your new two-year agreement?
"There are a lot of interesting possibilities with this technology and a lot of things you could use it for that have benefit in our daily lives."
Technology still in its infancy
Despite the advances in 3D printing and explosion of new machines, the technology is only starting to hit its stride.
Makers, start-ups, and major manufacturers have barely scratched the surface of where 3D printing can go. Case in point: It was only a few weeks ago that 3D Systems announced the first full-tone 3D printer, letting users create rainbow-colored objects.
While 3D System's 600-pound ProJet 4500 is simply too masive for the average consumer, it's machinery that will likely be employed by 3D printing services such as ShapeWays and iMaterialise. In a few years this color printing technology could be optimized and commercialized in the same way fused deposition modeling (or FDM, the current and popular method of 3D printing with hot extruded plastic) is being adapted for home use.
Beyond the tools, new materials are also being researched. Oakland, Calif.-based Emerging Objects is experimenting with stronger, alternative materials for architectural builds using salt and a fibrous concrete that can withstand 4,500 pounds of pressure.
And looking abroad, Europe is becoming the world's leader in producing new materials. One German 3D printing materials inventor alone has created two revolutionary materials; Laywoo-D3, a composite wood and plastic filament, and Laybrick, a strong enough for architectural builds.
Scanning through the 3D hype machine
Hyperbole is contagious on the web, so it's important to look at the promise of 3D printing with some skepticism. For one thing, it's far from perfect, and botched prints are a dime a dozen. That's not to mention the price or size restrictions we've already run through.
Still, it's impossible to ignore the enthusiasm of current buyers and future 3D printing developments. Commercial FDM or extruded plastic printers have come a long way from one MakerBot Cupcake CNC machine and a handful of homemades.
Today there are many more affordable printers in the market. At the same time, the industry continues to expand and simplify a database of 3D models for users to fabricate.
Beyond FDM, the world may start moving to other types of technology such as stereolithography, which can create higher-resolution (or thinner layer) objects with light-sensitive liquid resin, or truly self-built circuit boards through laser sintering that melts fine metal powders into solid shapes.
The stage is set for 3D printers to start sitting side-by-side with their inkjet brethren at office supply stores and occupying a coveted spot in our home offices. With the New Year, look for the new-ish tech to take hold.