Industrial 3D printing has been around since the late 80’s, originally used as an easy way to make prototypes, also called Rapid Prototyping. These industrial 3D-printers was costly systems not minted for the average consumer in any way. Various 3D-printing techniques is still widely used in the industry today as prototype makers and for producing parts for different products. For the next two decades commercial 3D printing never really hit home, but as we will see, during the first decade of the 21st century, a lot of things happened.
I would go as far as calling it a revolution for small startups and entrepeneurs, as well as for the industry. There’s no doubt the ability to make protoypes of your ideas in the safety of your home is tremendously useful. Some even call the 3D-printing technology an industrial revolution. The question is; where will it end? Is it a gimmick hyped by the media? Will 3D-printers become as normal of a household item as normal paper printers?
In late march 2005 an open source project, calling itself RepRap was founded. It is based on the idea of open source and the ability to use a 3D-printer to print parts for new 3D-printers as a cheap way to bring 3D-printing to the people. In 2006 the RepRap prototype successfully printed a part for itself. This snowballed and two years later it was reported that at least 100 RepRap machines was created by various people around the world. In 2009 the first commercial 3D-printer was released, and it was based on RepRap, coming in kit form, ready for assembly. Not much later the same year MakerBot, one of the most renowned makers of commercial 3D-printers today, released its first model.
From here the availability of printers have increased rapidly, with several more brands of printers showing up in the market, quality and precision improved on for every new model. Today, the commercial printer usually have a minimum of 0.1 mm layer height. That means that each layer of the plastic the printer adds is 0.1 mm thick, resulting in high-resolution prints with a lot of detail.
For startups 3D-printing is a gateway into realizing and visualizing ideas, making prototypes fast and cheap and speeding up the rate of realization of a finished product. Think of it this way; without your own 3D printer, you have to send specs for a prototype to a company who can make it, and they will for sure not do it free. Then you have to wait for the company to make it, pack it and ship it. Then it’s picked up by the postal service, thrown into a lorry, sent to an endless amount of post-terminals, eventually making its way to a place near you.
Say this whole process will presumably take a couple of weeks, imagine making that very prototype in 5-6 hours on a 3D-printer. Of course, you have the “startup-cost” of buying the printer itself, but with saved costs for further production of prototypes and all the time you will save, it is worth the price.
I would also make the statement that it helps you, by boosting your creativity. When you have this direct and fast way of going from idea to something physical I would dare to say it’s easier, more rewarding and more fun trying different concepts and solutions. So not only does it speed up the process of prototype-production from idea to physical object, but makes it more fun, rewarding and in general, less of a hassle.
3D-printing does not only empower us with the ability to make prototypes for our ideas, it has a lot of other applications, blasting through borders in for example the medical industry. One company, calling themselves Organovo has set out to print functioning human tissue for medical research. It also opens new gateways for prosthetics, as a cheap way to manufacture them. Think of a child that lacks a limb, they grow pretty fast and constantly buying new prosthetics will be expensive. The ability to 3D-print cheap ones are a wonderful way to help people in that situation.
Another company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, have made a 3D printer that can print houses. In a 24h period it managed to set up 10 single-story houses, the machine however took the company over 12 years to make. Each house had a cost of around 5000$ to build. They also built a 5 story apartment complex and a villa. 3D-printing turn the impossible into the possible and the expensive into cheap in a lot of industries.
Will 2015 be the year for 3D-printers to break through into the mainstream market? No doubt, we will see more advanced models, and models with more bang for the buck. They will most likely be more precise, cheaper and more available, but they will definitely not become a normal home appliance to find in most households. For that I think there isn’t enough applications for it to be attractive and worth the cost for a common guy/girl that isn’t especially interested. I think it will still be a product for enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and startups for the next few years.
Nobody can say accurately where the 3D-printer will be in five years though, and what machines will be released is left for anyone to guess. What I am sure of is that we will see development, and the big brands in 3D-printing will continue to improve and innovate. I don’t think 3D-printing is a gimmick, it is here to stay.