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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

3D Printing Grows Beyond “Gimmick” Stage and Takes Center Stage at CES 2015

January 8th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

As impressive as it is, last month we gave 3D printing a bit of a dressing down based on personal experience. The blog post was a reality check and a look at the technology not through rose-colored glasses. That’s not to say, though, that 3D printing is still one of the biggest innovations on the manufacturing front, if not the biggest, in recent memory.

Even with the major advances that have transpired in 3D printing, there are still a number of skeptics who view the technology as little more than a promotional stunt or gimmick.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015 took place this week. It’s an annual tech festival that began in 1967 that today attracts more than 160,000 attendees checking out about 3,500 exhibitors. Over the years, some of the more significant technologies first released at CES have included:

1970 – VCR

1981 – CD player

1985 – Nintendo Entertainment System

1998 – High-definition TV

2000 – Satellite radio

2003 – Blu-Ray DVDs

2015 – 3D Printing(?)

We didn’t attend CES this year, but we have been monitoring the activities in a pavilion dedicated to innovative technologies, including 3D printing.

3D Printing Highlights at CES 2015

For it to continue to grow and become more widely accepted, 3D printing, in 2015 and starting at CES this week, the underlying motive is to make the technology truly useful.

Let’s be honest, until now most businesses and consumers have had little reason to invest in 3D printers. Relatively inexpensive desktop 3D printers have been used primarily to make toys and trinkets. Food printers are interesting, but are still a distant dream from being in every kitchen. Bio-printers are incredible, but having them print replacement tissue and organs for patients needing them is still far away.

Albeit from afar, at CES this year, we continued to see a lot of the ongoing hype, but we also observed evidence starting to prove that 3D printing is a smart investment. With new materials, better software, and maturing companies, the technology is starting to become more realistic and practical for a broader range of prospective industries and customers.

Some of the most significant aspects of 3D printing presented at CES 2015 that we observed from afar include:

Materials Becoming More Utilitarian

Until now, most desktop printers have only used plastic filament, making it seem like home 3D printing was just a trivial novelty for printing toys. With the advent of new materials for home printing, the technology actually will become more useful and reach an audience beyond makers and hobbyists. With better materials, spare parts, customized, and more truly useful objects will be possible.

To this end, MakerBot announced that it will offer spools of PLA composite materials, such as wood, stone, and metal, starting this year. 3D Systems is also offering a nylon filament for its desktop 3D printers, and other young companies are offering carbon fiber and experimenting with metal, ceramic, and more materials with real engineering characteristics.

Software For Mere Mortals

It seemed like virtually every 3D printing vendor at CES was showing off their software platform for optimizing their hardware. From the beginning, the main requirement 3D printing needed to become mainstream was the software. The learning curve has proven just too steep for most people. It’s made for engineers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (for those of us comfortable with engineering software), but at CES 2015 several companies addressed the software complexity issue and broke down a big barrier to entry into 3D printing. A big emerging part of the solution are scanners that can capture objects and make it simpler to transform collected scans into 3D data for printing.

For example, Matter and Form, a company with a portable scanner that allows designs to be uploaded to any desktop 3D printer also launched Cashew 3D, its version of an open source platform for 3D designs, and due to launch this spring.

Education and Classroom 3D Printing

This year at CES, several companies discussed plans to universally take 3D printing into the classroom. For example, MakerBot’s Innovation Centers, facilities at universities where MakerBot Replicators and scanners are receiving a lot of resources and attention. The company is working with universities to educate students on the design process and potential with the technology to start to create courses that integrate 3D printing.

Another example was 3Doodler, a 3D printer pen that draws in the air. The company is introducing its second generation pen and is aiming a new Kickstarter campaign toward classrooms that want to teach more STEM subjects.

On the topic of STEM, taking 3D printing to the grade school classroom will continue to be important because it’s an easy way to integrate STEM subjects into a curriculum while offering an artistic component – something known as STEAM (the “A” stands for Art). At higher education levels, 3D printing labs will offer an entry point into engineering, which will be increasingly critical in the future as the demand for STEM jobs surges.

SMBs With a Focus on Small

For the most part of the past three decades, 3D printing has been mainly used by large manufacturing organizations, and at this scale is often referred to as additive manufacturing – to a large degree because they could afford it. These 3D printers are usually physically big and expensive. On the other hand, 3D printing is relatively small and inexpensive with compact desktop 3D machines.

CES showed that 2015 might finally be the year for 3D printing becoming a technology targeted toward small businesses for making useful parts economically. For example, companies such as Ultimaker are aiming 3D printer models specifically at SMBs, offering an attractive incentive to invest in a 3D printer.

For those businesses on the fence and aren’t ready to buy their own printer, service bureaus are an attractive option. 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental said that service bureaus and home/business printing don’t have to be at odds, and he sees plenty of room for both to grow this year.

Seems like good news for everybody.

Beyond the Gimmick Stage

Having observed what has happened at CES 2015, and after watching the 3D printing sector enjoy incredible growth in 2014, Changing Technologies (CHGT) is anticipating an even bigger year for the technology – expectations are high that 2015 will be the year that 3D printing becomes a truly disruptive technology.

“Even though companies like CHGT develop new applications for 3D printing every day, the technology is seen by some as an interesting ‘gimmick’ to create small, plastic items. In 2015, we’re quite confident 3D printing will shed the current perception and be recognized as the cutting-edge technology that it is,” said CHGT CEO Omar T. Durham. “With key patents expiring this year, 3D printers that use wood, metal and fabric could bring historic change to engineering and revolutionize a variety of industries worldwide. Right now major players, including the global defense industry, are investing heavily in the 3D printing of clothing, synthetic body parts, even food.”

Durham says 2015 could be the tipping point for 3D printing and the day is coming – and soon – where those without 3D printing capability will be at a competitive, or even a tactical, disadvantage. The 3D printing market is expected to grow 500 percent over the next five years and analysts predict that the demand for 3D printer materials and services will exceed $10 billion by 2018. Massive growth is expected as the technology is further embraced by small and large scale manufacturers, as well as the growing small business and mainstream consumer markets.

We may have given 3D printing sort of a hard time a few weeks ago, but it remains one of the truly innovative and inspirational technologies with unlimited potential, and much more than a gimmick.

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