3D printing technology, which lets you conjure three-dimensional objects out of thin air like a Star Trek replicator, has existed for decades but in recent years has rocketed in popularity thanks to the introduction of low-cost 3D printers that cost as little as a high-end washing machine.
CES 2014 was the first year of the massive technology tradeshow to feature an area dedicated wholly to 3D printing, proving just how popular the category has become.
Running the gauntlet of CES is a bit of a rite of passage for any new technology aimed at a consumer audience. Blu-ray, OLED, 3DTV, e-ink, ultrabooks, smartphones and the first mass-market drones have all passed through its hallowed halls over the last decade.
While several of the manufacturers showing 3D printers were not attending for the first time, by suddenly making such a high-profile appearance at the biggest consumer technology tradeshow, the industry is showing that it’s starting to take the home audience seriously.
Meet your Maker
One of the companies that’s been attending CES for years is New York-based MakerBot, which this year introduced a trio of desktop 3D printers. One, the MakerBot Replicator Mini, is clearly aimed at a consumer market – it has a simple, one-button setup, is designed for speed, can hook up to your computer over Wi-Fi and even includes a camera so you can watch the progress of a print job.
It can make objects with a maximum size of 10x10x12cm, and costs $1,375 – well within the reach of home hobbyists.
"If I were announcing cameras today, this one would be the point-and-shoot," said MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis on stage.
Other companies are driving equipment costs even further down. 3D Systems unveiled the sub-$1,000 Cube 3, but XYZprinting Inc, from Taiwan, won the race-to-the-bottom with the ‘da Vinci’ 3D printer, which carries a price tag of just $499 – making it the cheapest plug-and-play model on the market.
Its standout feature, other than its price, is that it can connect to an online database full of free 3D models. After all, a 3D printer isn’t much use without something to print, and most consumers aren’t exactly experienced 3D modellers.
That inconvenient fact is one of the major issues that manufacturers need to resolve if 3D printing is going to go mainstream.
The da Vinci has its database, and both 3D Systems and MakerBot have their own – Cubify and the Thingiverse, respectively. Google and Shapeways also host 3D object databases. Adobe is working on making 3D modelling software more accessible, too, by integrating it into its Photoshop CC app.
But it’s likely that many also will turn to peer-to-peer networks to source their designs. In early 2012, notorious filesharing network the Pirate Bay wrote in a blog post:
"We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects," explained the site.
"We believe that in the near future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years."
3D printing revolution
Pirate Bay founder Tobias Andersson predicted this could make things harder in the future for the site in an interview with Torrentfreak: "The coming copy fights will be on a totally other level. I’m talking about the 3D printing revolution. In a few years, millions of blueprints of tools, car parts, clothing and weapons will be up for download. If there is a safe platform," he said.
"The Pirate Bay in its current form can withstand the pressure from quite harmless industries like the movie and music industries. But when car, oil, and weapons industries and all the countries that depend on them start to feel threatened, we can’t depend on a few people to sacrifice themselves."
An early shot against the bows of the pirates has been taken by a Californian startup named Authentise. The company has developed a marking technology that prints unique identifiers into 3D objects, meaning that they can’t be digitally scanned without the original purchaser being tracked down. "Each object printed will include one or multiple identifiers that enable investigators to trace any party along the value chain; the designer, the printer, and any intermediary," writes the company.
The other spectre that’s looming over the industry is an environmental one. While 3D printing techniques tend to use less material than conventional machining, there’s an argument that putting a 3D printer in every home may continue to fuel the western world’s unsustainable addiction to useless plastic trinkets.
This problem may already be starting to be addressed, with the invention of small extruders that eat up plastic waste and turn it into the raw material necessary for 3D printing. With a bit of luck, it doesn’t seem impossible that packaging waste may eventually be able to be recycled within the home into other useful products. Such technology would also have a vast impact in the developing world.
Despite these possible hurdles, most analysts are bullish on the prospects for 3D printing. Pete Basiliere from Gartner research wrote in a blog post: "Consumer 3D printing has moved beyond needing technology evangelists to market itself." Investment research group Zacks agree, saying: "The 3D printing market presents a favorable long-term opportunity," and IDC estimate that shipments will grow ten times in the next three years, saying: "The fast-paced evolution of 3D printing has moved well beyond early adopters and hobbyists, and is now being utilized regularly in business applications where substantial cost and time-to-market benefits are gained."
Meanwhile, as consumers start eyeing up basic 3D printers, the cutting edge has moved on to food. 3D Systems has partnered with Hersheys to make 3D-printed chocolate and sweets using the company’s ChefJet model, while Italian food giant Barilla is looking at doing the same for pasta. Artists are also starting to use the technology to fabricate more intricate artworks, while doctors are using 3D printing in Sudan to fabricate prosthetics.
Will 2014 be 3D printing’s year? "3D printing is at its inflection point" writes Basiliere. "Shipments of 3D printers are taking off and are poised for a "hockey stick" growth curve."
But what’s still lacking to convert the mainstream is a compelling application for the technology. We may not have long to wait, he adds: "We expect that something that can only be created at home on a 3D printer will hit the scene by 2016."
So there you go – 2014 might not be the year of 3D printing, but you’re going to love 2016.