The 3-D printing revolution becomes practical

While we are unlikely to see a 3-D printer in every home anytime soon, 3D printing is moving beyond the hype and into the realm of reality.

More exhibitors, new printers and exciting applications at CES prove consumer 3D printing is moving beyond the hype. We will — indeed, we must — still pass through the “Trough of Disillusionment” and it remains to be seen just how wide that trough will be. However, the nature of the exhibits, hardware and software at the Consumer Electronics Show last week demonstrate that 3D printer technology providers — hardware and software and materials — are aware of just how important it is to market viable consumer offerings.

The one truly unique 3D printer at CES was definitely not a consumer device — Voxel8’s prints conductive silver ink. Using a dual extrusion head, one extruder works with PLA plastic and the other with the conductive material, integrating it into your piece. And you can even stop the printing of both materials, insert an electronic chip and wiring harness, and restart printing is tight registration. The result is something like this

Voxel8 Drone Upright
Voxel8 3D printed and assembled Drone. Source: Pete Basiliere

Voxel8 was co-founded by two former Harvard PhD students, Michael Bell and Travis Busbee. Bell and Busbee had studied under Jennifer Lewis. Professor Lewis is the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. According to her biography, “Jennifer and her team have developed new classes of concentrated colloidal, fugitive organic, polymer, hydrogel, and sol-gel inks for pen-on-paper, inkjet, roll-to-roll and 3D printing.”

Voxel8 is just a few months old, yet it already won a $50,000 prize at the MassChallenge for entrepreneurs. Preorders for its $9,000 functional printers are being accepted now. Keep your eyes on Voxel8, their potential is great.

After last year’s CES, I blogged that the 3D printing market had moved beyond needing technology evangelists to sell itself. Not that evangelism is a bad thing but that unquestioned, unbridled, “you just have to have one” enthusiasm was not enough to grow the consumer market. A year has come and gone and I can report that CES 2015 was about practical, viable uses of consumer 3D printers.

Now, keep in mind that for the next few years most consumers, worldwide, will have someone else make their things with a 3D printer. The entry level price, even of a $349 Micro by M3D, is too high for typical consumer use. That said, M3D did raise $3.4 million in sales from over 8,300 backers on Kickstarter, so the price is definitely compelling for many people.

So, with software such as Modio and TinkerCAD enabling children such as my 5 year old grandson to create 3D printable robots and much more, online and physical stores that 3D POD (3D Print-on-Demand) those creatures and much more will themselves be in demand.

Indeed, several speakers at the TCT Conference on 3D printing held during CES took great pains to say we will not have a printer in every home “anytime soon.” I’ve been saying that years, since before our first 3D printer market forecast was published. With 7.3 billion people living on our planet today and only 1.9 million printers costing $2,500 or less that will be sold in 2018, which is 1 printer for every 3,850 people. Anyway, I digress . . .

The arrival of “Makers,” people who not only are hobbyists but also inventors and entrepreneurs, on the additive manufacturing scene five years ago is what drove the hype around 3D printing. The established businesses who had created the core technologies and had been nurturing the market for upward of twenty years were not responsible for the hype. Initiatives such asRepRap and Fab@ Home and startups such as MakerBot drove the hype.

This year MakerBot’s exhibit focused on the story of how its printers are driving innovation within the enterprise as well as creativity and learning at home and within schools and universities. MakerBot decided not to introduce new 3D printers this year, instead, as CEO Jenny Lawton, put it, “focusing our efforts on creating the most comprehensive MakerBot 3D Ecosystem to support our customers.”

This approach is entirely appropriate given where the consumer 3D printer market is today. MakerBot, and others such as 3D Systems, Airwolf, Afinia, Leapfrog, Printrbot, Stratasys, Ultimaker and others who are rolling out school curriculum and actively placing 3D printers in schools worldwide, are creating not only an innovative workforce but also future consumers of 3D printers.

And Makers and entrepreneurs. Think of people such as Voxel8’s Bell and Busbee, Formlab’s Max Lobovsky and MarkForged’s Greg Mark. Young people, straight out of university, who created a 3D printer company that, yes, drew on the work of earlier entrepreneurs such as Chuck Hull, Scott Crump and Hans Langer but took the technology further and into new markets. So, too, are people such as Marius Kalytis of 3D model marketplace cgtrader (based in Lithuania) and Brian Garret and Bram de Zwart of 3Dhubs (New York City and Amsterdam) and Peter Weijmarshausen of Shapeways (also New York and the Netherlands).

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was much more than the exhibitors of several new consumer-focused material extrusion printers. CES was about the maturation of the consumer 3D printer market, the start of a new era in consumer 3D printers when enthusiasm, applications and great ideas from young and old alike will drive consumer use of 3D printers and 3D printed output, worldwide.

Pete Basiliere is Research Vice President - Imaging and Print Services - at Gartner.

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