What you need to know about 3D printers for today and tomorrow

Beyond the hype, there are real uses for this technology, but also some key barriers yet to be addressed

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3D printing tomorrow
That's where we are today. On the industrial side, there's a lot of research on 3D printing -- and early-stage products -- using materials other than plastic, including metals, ceramic composites, and biological substances. There are even some devices on the market that can print an object using multiple materials: the Holy Grail for producing commercial-grade objects.

But the printing part is only half of the equation. You need a model of what to print before you can print it.

On the industrial side, those NC routers provide a straightforward path: the CAD/CAM drawings they use. 3D modeling is no longer science fiction, but now part of standard CAD programs and even consumer-accessible software like Adobe Photoshop, whose latest version has drivers for 3D printing. I foresee a time when you could have a 3D printer at home to which you download patterns bought over the Web, sort of like sewing patterns are bought today. It's also easy to imagine a company like Amazon.com pioneering this for consumers -- who needs quadricopter delivery if you can print it on demand at home?

But for Makers and other hobbyists, even a program like Photoshop is pushing the envelope. If your goal is to replicate something -- a figurine of your cat, a gear, a special Lego piece -- you need a way to capture that object. Very few people could draw it themselves. That's where 3D scanners come in. A surprising number of handheld 3D scanners are being promoted, including one that connects to the iPad, though a substantial portion are Kickstarter promises, not actual products likely to ever see the light of day.

These scanners are essentially cameras that stitch together the images to create a surface map of the object -- which brings us back to the figurine issue. Because these scanners see only the surface, they send to a 3D printer simply a set of instructions for a shape that is colored to match what you see but is internally made of all the same material, such as a figurine. These scans can't be used to create a multiple-material object, so more functional objects will still need to be generated from 3D CAD drawings, then sent to a multiple-material printer.

3D's future is a niche one
Few notions can be guaranteed to excite techies. 3D is one of those. Remember the endless blather around 3D TVs in the early 2010s? In the real world, 3D television has gone nowhere. Some believe 3D printing is destined for the same fate. I don't agree with them; the requirement to wear 3D glasses is a big factor in the failure of 3D TV, whereas there's no such awkward requirement for 3D printing. But I do believe that 3D printing is inherently a niche, both for consumers and businesses.

Assuming affordability, 3D printing of figurines, simple objects, and the like makes sense for people who do crafts or DIY projects (the Maker crowd). Like any hobbyist, they'll invest in tools that let them pursue their hobbies.

For businesses, 3D printing certainly makes sense for product development, such as to visualize prototypes. That's nothing new -- for decades, companies have created models of cars, computers, and so on using traditional methods like physical model-making and carving, then NC-based automated carving, and now onscreen 3D renders. 3D printers will simplify that effort for physical objects, allowing a wider range of businesses and people within businesses do such prototyping.

If multiple-material printers become affordable enough, we'll see custom parts generation arrive as a business opportunity at your local Home Depot, as well as auto and appliance repair shops. Maybe we'll even see that putative Amazon 3D printer box in your home.

I don't see 3D printing becoming as ubiquitous as 2D printing was in its heyday. But it doesn't have to be.

This article, "What you need to know about 3D printers for today and tomorrow," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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