3D printers: Almost mainstream

As the tools used to create printable objects get easier, the technology could find acceptance outside the traditional niches

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The colors aren't as bright, and the finished product has a texture that Fries describes as somewhat "chalky." But it works fine for models that ship in a glass display case, and the price is right: It costs about $5 per cubic inch to print a figure, not including pre- and post-processing time.

FigurePrints sells the characters for about $15 per cubic inch -- and users seem willing to pay. "A common request is for wedding cake toppers," Fries says. "Couples meet in the games and want their characters on top of the wedding cake."

Smith also likes the idea of using 3D printers for one-off or limited run manufacturing. "We can do small-scale production -- tens of units -- without spending the money on expensive injection-molding tools," he says. But the printer works slowly, producing up to about four runs a day. FigurePrints gets about two products per day from each of its printers.

"If you're trying to manufacture with these machines, throughput is everything," Wohlers says. Using 3D printers successfully in a manufacturing setting will require better automation of both pre-processing and post-processing steps.

Cobb says Stratasys expects to cut total pre- and post-processing time for a typical print job in half, from 5 hours today to about 2.5 hours within the next three years, and for prices to drop from today's $15,000 for its entry-level professional printer to between $7,000 and $10,000 in that same timeframe. "In three to five years you will have the same capabilities for under $5,000," he says.

In the personal printer space, says Lewis at 3D Systems, prices will drop even further. "In the next year or two you will see us go past the $1,000 mark. In two years we'll be close to $500," she says.

How much the market will grow as prices continue to drop, and whether a mass market will ever emerge, is an open question. But as easy-to-use 3D design tools get better, and as shared 3D object libraries gain in size and sophistication, businesses and consumers may come up with new applications for the technology that haven't yet been envisioned. "3D printing is where the semiconductor business was in the 1960s," Wohlers says. "We know it is going to be big but we don't know how big."

This story, "3D printers: Almost mainstream" was originally published by Computerworld.

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