The 3D printing industry has experienced its own growing pains in the last couple of years as a flood of new companies from around the world have rushed to stake their claim for a share of this rapidly evolving market predicted to reach $13 billion over the next two years. Yet what has emerged is a technology that has dramatically expanded not only what can be printed in 3D (nearly everything), but where the finished product can be delivered, even beyond our own planet.
A snapshot of where the 3D printing industry is headed was provided over the past two days at the “Inside 3D Printing” conference in Santa Clara, California as company representatives and industry analysts gathered to assess the present and future for a market that a recent International Data Corporation report labeled “white hot.” And what was striking about the comments from speakers and the products on display is how quickly 3D printing technology has matured.
The question these days is no longer what can be printed in 3D, but what cannot. A technology that was once limited to the manufacture of small parts and miniature figures now includes the ability to print makeup, sneakers, human organs, teeth, and even an entire bridge.
One of the more interesting uses of 3D printing technology is for space travel. On Wednesday, Andrew Rush, president of Made In Space, described how his firm successfully developed the world’s first zero gravity 3D printer and placed it in the orbiting International Space Station in November of last year.
“When you get to Mars or the moon, you’re going to need tools,” said Rush.
A milestone for 3D printing in space occurred recently when one of the orbiting astronauts in the Space Station realized that he needed a torque wrench. So Rush’s company emailed a file to the breadbox-sized printer and the wrench was created in two hours. “It was certainly the fastest anything has ever been delivered to the Space Station,” said Rush.
Made In Space is also looking at the potential for manufacturing small “cube” satellites in orbit using 3D printing technology. This could be a significant step because the deployment of such satellites would not require the expensive process of carrying them into orbit, and they would not have to be designed to withstand the stress of the rocket launch itself.
Another interesting development in 3D printing involves artwork, particularly large sculptures. Lisa Federici, CEO of Scansite 3D, gave a presentation this week that highlighted her firm’s work to create scaled down reproductions of 28 works by Michelangelo.
Working with two other partners, Federici’s company scanned the large statutes and then created 3D printable files that allowed them to reproduce the master’s legendary works in exquisite detail. “The key is in how to merge the data that’s been scanned,” said Federici.
Projects involving space stations and art masters represent the higher end of the 3D printing technology world. But one of the drivers in the faster deployment of 3D manufacturing has been the growing availability of affordable, lower cost printers.
One company that is seeking to revolutionize the consumer 3D printing market is New Matter. Founded in 2014, the firm unveiled a WiFi-connected consumer 3D printer at CE Week in New York earlier this year that retails for $399, a price point not vastly different from more traditional, high-end paper printers today.
“Our goal was to create the first truly easy-to-use at-home 3D printing experience at an affordable price,” said Steve Schell, CEO and co-founder of New Matter. “The consumer 3D printing market has tremendous potential for expansion.”
What is especially significant about the future direction of the 3D printing industry can be seen in the increasingly wider adoption of uses for the technology. This week’s conference included session tracks for the medical profession and even virtual reality. The industry is starting to move into new areas that will likely fuel more growth, both on earth and far, far above it.