Electric self-driving cars, Suborbital space flights, cloud computing, content delivery networks, and 3-D printing. All of these tech concepts were seen as extraordinarily innovative when they were first introduced to a mass audience. Although some so-called “new” technologies have actually been in development by various parties for years, once they start to go mainstream, we are easily skeptical: “Is this really as huge as the public and the press want to think it is,” we wonder, “or is it just hype?”
3-D printing is all over the place these days. It appeared in many of the emerging tech trends lists for 2014. In his compilation of 10 hot trends for VentureBeat, John Koetsier predicted that, throughout 2014, 3-D printing would “increase significantly” as key players including Microsoft, Samsung, and HP enter the arena. The International Space Station is even having a printing device with an additional dimension installed this year.
This field is not new. The Economist called it a “third industrial revolution” in 2012 in an article that cited Paul Markillie’s perspective that the 3-D printer would be incredibly disruptive to the manufacturing world, shipping a sizable portion of production back to wealthy nations.
Although it’s been on the table for some time, the 3-D printer has staying power. It’s even been dressed up for broader consumer awareness in the documentary Print the Legend, which debuted at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year (above).
Even President Obama has become involved. He said in his State of the Union address in 2013, “3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.”
Again, though, it’s trendy. As with any trend, it’s a little difficult to tell when it’s going to plateau. Where do we now stand in the uphill climb of this technology? Investment firm Motley Fool said on September 9 that stocks for 3-D printing firms “have a tremendous runway for growth.” According to the coverage on the Fool.com blog, Wohlers Associates has been assessing the 3-D printing sector for three decades and greatly increased its projections in the Wohlers Report 2014. In last year’s report, Wohlers forecast that the industry would expand to $10.8 billion by 2021. This year they revised their prediction, speculating that the global market will grow from $3.1 billion (2013) to $21 billion in 2020. In other words, 3-D printing is growing twice as fast as expected even just a year ago, based on an assumedly conservative estimate by a financial firm possessing long-term familiarity with the market segment.
Are we there yet?
You may be able to make your own products with 3-D printers, as long as you’re doing a limited run. However, you have always needed one ingredient that no one seems to have enough of: patience. As Signe Brewster commented in a June report for Gigaom, 3-D printing is excruciatingly slow: in fact, “in the time it would take to print a screwdriver, you could just drive to the store and pick one up with a half hour to spare.”
Well, here’s the thing, noted Brewster: the apparatus is capable of speedier production. All it would require is the use of an extruder that dispenses more material per second, and that can be accomplished simply by thickening its output. Well, the best things come to those who wait: when you go with thicker material, your resolution starts to suffer: you are no longer able to conceal the transitions between layers.
The convenience factor – time – is critical to determining which 3-D printing companies will end up on top, and major hurdles like this are common with developing technologies. Just like the electric car industry has been working furiously to expand the driving range of cars while reducing the cost of batteries (which all took a major leap forward this summer when Tesla Motors made all its technological details open source), companies in the 3-D printing world have been aggressively trying to increase the pace of their devices.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory and 3D Systems are at the forefront of that effort. The lab has been studying and modifying the BAAM 3D printer, manufactured by Cincinnati Inc., with the goal of getting it to print as much as 500 times the rate of a typical mass-market 3D printer. The printer in use is enormous, capable of printing furniture. On a standard printer, chairs would have to be printed in segments and then assembled, and the printing process alone would take days. Using its modified version of BAAM, Oak Ridge was able to crank out chairs in under three hours apiece.
3D Systems uses a different model, based on an assembly line of machines. It sets various printers on a track, each one focusing on specific colors and material types.
Did you know that you can make a car with 3D printing? You can even make incredibly tacky jewelry. Heck, you can even do this:
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By Kent Roberts