3D Printing Revolution Ahead

There’s good reason to get excited about this technology. The potential uses are enormous.

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The 3D printing industry has been getting loads of press recently. It has captured the imagination of many, with the possibility of starting a manufacturing revolution.

New applications and materials are announced on a (very) frequent basis. ColorFabb will beta test two new filament materials, one based on bronze and the other bamboo, in the coming months. NASA and Tethers Unlimited are developing a method of recycling filament for reuse for 3D printing at the International Space Station. Grafoid and Altamat are developing graphene-based powders and filaments for 3D printing. The German startup twoBEars has introduced biodegradable filament with unique textures that are ideal for creating artistic forms like vases. Mcor Technologies’ printers use, believe it or not, standard sheets of printer paper to eventually create objects with a solid, wood-like texture. In the medical industry, researchers are developing ways to print living cells with the idea of producing replacement organ’s from the patient’s own cells. 3D Systems can’t add capacity fast enough for its new Direct Metal 3D printer division, as sales continue to eclipse capacity.

Also, 3D printing methods will continue to evolve. Google’s modular smartphone project, Project Ara, will go live in 2015. 3DSystems is building a completely new continuous, high-speed 3D printing production platform to be able to match what they hope will be high-volume demand. Rather than the “reciprocating platform” that today’s slow 3D printers use, the new platform will be based on a racetrack architecture that will allow for continuous motion, with the ability to go “off ramp” if needed for specific finishing steps. The company is working with Carnegie Mellon University and X5 Systems on ways to print functional components as well, such as antennas. Even if Project Ara doesn’t succeed, other products will surely benefit from this innovation.

On the other hand, skeptics point to the fact that the industry has been around for decades, and volumes are still very low. Because printing is a very slow process, volume production is not an option with current methods. Consumer-level printers still require users with some design expertise and a technical bent, since the printers are still far from “plug and play.”

Semico Research believes that there is a tremendous amount of momentum behind the 3D printing industry. Prices continue to fall while the quality improves, which opens the door to more applications, such as customized wearable electronic devices. We will explore this topic at the 3D Printing TechXPOT at SEMICON West 2014. The session is titled 3D Printing: Science Fiction or the Next Industrial Revolution? Speakers include Patrick Dunne from 3DSystems, Alexandre Jais from Rabbit Proto, and me. Join us there!