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Design & Engineering: 3D Printing for the Masses

Stratasys Idea Series (image courtesy of Stratasys)

Stratasys Idea Series (image courtesy of Stratasys)

TROBO is a big fan of 3D Printing.  There is just something unbelievably cool and futuristic about the ability to reach into a printer and pull out a 3D object.  It feels like something out of a movie.  Except its real.  And soon we will all be able to do it.

3D printing – also known by the more fancy name “Additive Manufacturing” – has been on the scene for over a decade.  Like any new technology, the first 3D printers were giant machines, confined to large companies with massive R&D budgets.  Then, Makerbot came on the scene with their slightly-bigger-than-a-breadbox “Thing-O-Matic” 3D printer in 2009; they first sold it as a kit for hobbyists to put together and use.  Later, they sold assembled units and their product line has continued to evolve to include the “Replicator” and its variants.  Besides just coming out with awesome-named products, Makerbot made 3D printing affordable and they also built an ecosystem to surround it.  The “Thingiverse” is an online repository where users can post and share 3D printable designs.  Besides establishing a community for 3D print enthusiasts, Thingiverse (along with free/low-cost design software like Sketchup and Autodesk 123D and great tutorials) have made 3D printing even more accessible.  Now, 3D printers can be found in Maker labs and schools.  Even our local library here in Orlando has 3D printers and classes for patrons at the Melrose Center.  But we are probably a long way from 3D printers being as ubiquitous as ink-jet printers in every home.

Then again, maybe not.  In March, HP announced that they will be making a move into the 3D printing field.  When you think about it, it makes total sense.  HP derives a whole lot of revenue from selling printer ink.  Anyone who has bought an ink-jet printer in the past 10 years knows that they are pretty much disposal.  It’s the classic “razor blade” distribution model: give away the handle, sell the blades for a lot of money.  Ink-jet printer ink is very expensive and printers use a lot of it.  Guess what: 3D printers have a lot of consumables too.  Whether it is the PLA (or Polylactic Acid) filament that lower-cost printers like Makerbot use or binders/powders that higher end printers use, there is a lot of money to be made in selling consumables.

The other issue is that there really has not been a big enough player in the 3D printing industry to build enough scale to push it down to the “every home” level of acceptance.  Makerbot was acquired in 2013 by Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of high-end 3D printers.  But it will take a company of the size of HP to not only push the costs down to consumer levels but also to create an even bigger ecosystem of designs and software to make them usable by everyone.  HP indicated that they will be entering the 3D printing space by October and it will be interesting to see if they come in at the right price, with the right devices and the support for popular development software.

Even with all of this amazing innovation, we are still at the very beginning of the 3D spectrum.  Someday, we will be printing circuit boards, electronics, foods, etc.  That sci-fi future is really exciting and it might seem like it is really far off.  But you have to start somewhere!

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