3D printing: trends and observations

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Here at Displayplan we’ve had our 3D printer for just over two years now and have experienced, first-hand, the benefits it brings in terms of reducing product development time and increasing the overall quality of designs.

“3D Printing” was one of the most powerful buzz-words of 2014; now fully deposited onto the build-plate of public awareness, most people have heard of 3D Printing and a growing number of us have a good practical understanding of the technology.
So how is the market shifting/ evolving and what trends are we starting to see? (note: these are my views as an owner/operator/builder of 3d printers & overall geeky enthusiast.)

Quality

It seems not a day passes with a new “latest-&-greatest” 3D printer popping up on Kickstarter & what we’re seeing now compared with a few years ago is a marked increase in the overall quality of the machines. Original rickety plywood & fishing-line structures have been replaced with powder coated steel frames, injection-moulded components & precision-machined hot-ends (the nozzles which molten plastic squirts out of).

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New vs Old – Latest Gen Printrbot Metal Plus vs 1st Gen Printrbot
(image courtesy www.printrbot.com)

Whilst the main market for 3D Printers has transitioned from hobbyist to casual-consumer over the past few years, it is only recently that we have started to see companies more actively targeting the non-hobbyist market. Improvements in hardware, software & support all seek to make the 3D printing experience a lot more seamless, minimising the trial-and-error tinkering and frustrating problems that can often arise. We’re also seeing companies like Makerbot & 3D Systems move into the conventional retail environment – Makerbot having opened 3 flagship stores as well as partnering with large electronics retailers.

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Makerbot Retail Store – Boston (image courtesy www.makerbot.com)

Supporting Industries

We’re not just seeing an explosive rise in the number of companies making 3D printers, we’re also seeing more and more companies fulfilling supporting roles. More people are buying/ building 3D printers and so creating a higher demand for ancillaries such as different printing materials, accessories, spares, and upgrades. Other businesses such as 3D Hubs harness the power of crowd-creation and provide a large network of privately-owned 3D printers for use by anyone who needs. Filament-supplying companies are sprouting up all over the world, from China to the Czech Republic. Enterprising industrial designers are inventing low-cost 3D scanners to fill gaps in the market whilst others are developing and selling retro-fitting plastic sheets to improve build-plate adhesion. We may have reached saturation point when it comes to 3D printers (or have we?) but their increasing uptake is spawning new inventions & business ideas on a daily basis.

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Matter and Form 3D scanner for turning physical things into digital things
(image courtesy matterandform.com)

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3D Hubs has created a network of 10,000 3D printing users to enable anyone to access a 3D printer, wherever they are.
(images courtesy www.3dhubs.com)

Materials

One of the more interesting developments to emerge from the proliferation of 3D printing is the development of new materials and processes. ABS and PLA have held strong as the go-to materials of choice for consumer 3D printing, but they may not hold pole position for very long. Many companies now exist that create their own filament from scratch, & due to the experimental nature of the tinkerers and inventors who build, use and sell 3D printers, we’re starting to see some very interesting materials come to market that can be used in consumer 3D printers:

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Ninjaflex filament allows anyone with a compatible 3d printer to print objects in a tough, but very flexible rubber. Ideal for phone cases, shoe soles, cable tidies etc.
(image courtesy www.creativetools.se)

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Laywood filament is an experimental composite blend of 40% recycled wood particles and binder polymer. It allows you to 3D print items in (sort of) wood.

(image courtesy www.3dspacelab.com/)

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Bronzefill filament from ColorFabb is another composite material, combining metal powder with a polymer binder to allow the printing of objects in (sort of) metal! It is also appearing using different metal types – copper, iron, stainless steel filaments have all reared their heads recently. The image shows an item straight off the build plate vs post-processing polish.
(image courtesy colorfabb.com)

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Conductive PLA from Proto-Pasta brings us closer to the goal of being able to 3D-print circuit boards and other electronics.
(image courtesy www.proto-pasta.com)

Community

The online presence of 3D file and knowledge transfer is increasing. Once the initial excitement of printing low-polygon Pokemon figurines and Yoda sculptures wears off people find themselves at a loss for what to do with their expensive new toys. Enter stage right; the online database of free (but sometimes paid) to download 3D models such as Thingiverse, Grabcad, 3dcontent central, the newly announced cashew etc. Online communities of 3D-printer enthusiasts, designers, engineers & 3D sculptors collaborate and make sharing and creating digital-to-physical content easier than ever before. Easier-to-learn CAD software, such as Tinkercad or Autodesk 123D Design is enabling people to go from idea to 3D model, to physical object much more easily. However creating 3D content is still far from simple & there is a lot more to be done in terms of the software’s ease-of-use before it becomes a truly mainstream tool.

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The GrabCad online 3D model database & community was recently purchased by 3D printing giant Stratasys for approximately $100 million.
(image courtesy www.gradcab.com)

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TinkerCAD offers a more intuitive 3D modeling solution for those new to or starting out in the world of 3D content creation.
(image courtesy www.tinkercad.com)

Summary

It’s amazing to behold an industry growing with such explosive energy and no doubt there will be doubters and cynics waiting for the bubble to burst. But if these trends point to anything, it’s that 3D printing has moved far beyond the “additive manufacture” moniker of old, and far from being a gimmicky flash-in-the-pan, is an industry constantly expanding into new areas, spawning spin-offs and parallel businesses that are helping re-ignite not just the economy, but the sparks of creativity, innovation and ingenuity that come with the realisation that we as humans can actually make some awesome things!

Posted 28-01-16