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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.

Many personal 3D printers go to educational institutions, rather than homes. "We want to get these into the hands of kids," says MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis. "It gives them access to the raw power of innovation."

Unfortunately, simple 3D design software for home hobbyists isn't suitable for professional use, and professional tools are still quite complicated to use. That leaves a big gap between consumers and industrial designers. "Today you need to be an expert CAD user to create digital content, or you need a fancy scanner to capture 3D geometry of an object you want to print," says Lewis at 3D Systems.


The MakerBot 3D printer, which sells for $1,500, makes 3D objects by applying successive layers of molten ABS plastic. While designed for the home/hobby market, professional designers are finding the devices usable for some commercial applications. For example, Smith Engineering used a similar product to build and assemble the parts for a commercial robot prototype.

In 2010, 3D printer vendors shipped 5,978 personal 3D printers -- almost as many as sold into the professional market. But Wohlers doubts that a broad do-it-yourself at-home market will develop for personal 3D printers.

The bigger market, he says, will be the emergence of on-demand manufacturers that use industrial 3D printers or personal 3D printers that cost from $500 to $5,000. They will produce unique one-off or small-quantity items tailored to consumers or businesses that don't want bother with designing and printing items for themselves, Wohlers says.

Gartner predicts that the price for professional 3D printers that now sell for $15,000 will decline to about $2,500 by 2020 and will deliver better performance and more features. But ultimately, says Basiliere, "From the manufacturer's perspective it's not the sale price of the printer but the sale of the supplies that matters most." Average consumables costs for 3D printers range from $2.50 to $10 per cubic inch, according to Basiliere.

Small-business manufacturing

The emergence of low-cost 3D printing lowers the bar for some types of manufacturing. "Companies and individuals with design talent and business savvy can start a business and start manufacturing products," Wohlers says.

After seeing what a 3D printer could do, Ed Fries, the former vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, started up FigurePrints, which uses Z Corp.'s ZPrinter machines to create one-of-a kind models of personal avatars for World of Warcraft and Xbox Live game enthusiasts.

FigurePrints downloads the characters directly from each game site, and lets users pose them before placing an order. An artist then cleans up the object, smoothing away the series of polygons that describe the figure and adding a third dimension to some 2D elements of the image, such as a cape and hair.


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