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3D printers: Almost mainstream

Robert L. Mitchell | Dec. 22, 2011
Richard Smith needed to build a wall-climbing robot for a customer -- so he printed one.

Others report similar savings. By using an HP DesignJet for rapid prototyping, Tintometer Ltd. sped up its product development times by 40% to 60%, says industrial designer Amy Penn. And the company, which manufactures industrial instruments that measure color, also uses the 3D printer to build finished products.

The DesignJet builds testing jigs that calibrate components before they're inserted into the final instrument during the manufacturing process. The parts more precisely meet the original specifications compared to what Tintometer was able to get from a service bureau, and are just as sturdy and a lot cheaper, says Penn. The 3D printer also made it cost effective to print concept parts that sales people can show to customers. "The ROI was about six months," she says.

Penn did not disclose what she paid, but she has the DesignJet 3D color unit, which sells for 16,200 Euros, or about $21,000 U.S. The monochrome version of the DesignJet 3D printer sells for 12,500 Euros.

In terms of shipments, the market for 3D printers remains relatively small. Unit shipments for professional use grew at a compound annual rate of 37% in 2010, according to Wohlers. This includes usage by industrial engineers, architects, engineers in traditional markets such as aerospace, consumer products, electronics, tool makers and other manufacturing concerns. But that 2010 growth amounted to just 6,164 units -- a tiny fraction of the 2D printer market. In 2010 there were over 44 million traditional printers shipped worldwide, according to IDC.

With only 51,000 3D printers sold worldwide since 1988 and 2.7 million solid modeling CAD seats worldwide, Wohlers estimates that there's plenty of room for growth. By 2015, Wohlers expects, shipments of industrial 3D printers will more than double to 15,000 units.

The potential for growth is one reason why Hewlett Packard dipped a toe in the water with the introduction of the DesignJet 3D, which HP sells only in Europe. The printer is a re-branded version of market leader Stratasys' uPrint 3D printer.

Objects made easy

Although they lack the capabilities of professional solid-modeling tools, all of the tools below can generate printable 3D objects -- and they're free.

Google SketchUp

Autodesk 123D



A growing hobbyist market has also developed for 3D printers; people use the technology to make everything from toys to drawer pulls. Free 3D modeling tools for hobbyists (see sidebar at right) make the creation process easier, while companies such as MakerBot Industries, LLC provide low-cost plastic extrusion, or plastic jet printers.

Manufacturers also offer libraries of preconfigured objects that users can work with. For example, MakerBot offers Thingiverse, a website where users can share objects they've created. Autodesk 123D offers a similar community.


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