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3D printing expands beyond makers

-December 02, 2013

This article is part of EDN’s Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2014 feature, where EDN editors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2013 that promise to shape technology news in 2014 and beyond.

Go to any maker or open-source design event, and you’ll find 3D printers there, usually accompanied by rows and rows of manufactured tchotchkes, likely busts of Star Wars characters. But it’s not just about Yoda heads to be showcased at Maker Faires anymore. 3D printing has evolved from a high-priced medium used by an exclusive few, to a manufacturing trend that some believe will see widespread adoption in 2014.

3D printers are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around for more than 20 years. But with patents expiring and the open-source community beginning to take on the build challenges of 3D printers, not just leverage the manufacturing opportunities these machines offer, the world of 3D printing is set for explosive growth next year and the following year.

The growth trend began to show itself in 2013. According to Gartner, worldwide shipments of 3D printers priced at less than $100,000 will grow 49 percent in 2013 to reach a total of 56,507 units. Gartner shared that estimate in its first forecast for the less than $100,000 consumer and enterprise 3D-printer market, made in October 2013 and noting that rapid quality and performance innovations across all 3D-printing technologies will drive enterprise and consumer demand.

Further, in Gartner’s follow-on Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends report for 2014, the research company identified 3D printing as a technology with the potential for significant impact on the enterprise in the next three years. Gartner stated that consumer market hype has made organizations aware of the fact 3D printing is a real, viable, and cost-effective means to reduce costs through improved designs, streamlined prototyping, and short-run manufacturing. As such, Gartner estimates worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to grow 75 percent in 2014, followed by a near doubling of unit shipments in 2015.

"The 3D-printer market has reached its inflection point," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner. "While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software, and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results."

Atmel AVR XMEGA
An Atmel AVR XMEGA microcontroller offering high integration and low power consumption for 8/16-bit MCU applications.
Atmel is one of the hardware makers answering the 3D-printer market call. The company came into 3D printers from the open-source side of its business and now Atmel AVR XMEGA and megaAVR MCUs can be found in the majority of 3D printers on the market, including the popular MakerBot and RepRap rapid prototyping system brands.

“As an engineer, I really like the fact that 3D printers are enabling anyone to make 3D objects,” said Andreas Eieland, senior product marketing manager for Flash microcontrollers at Atmel. “There are now two or three 3D printer companies that have a product that you don’t need to be an engineer at heart to make them work. They are so easy anyone can have them up and running in a few hours. We have this huge development on the low-end side where for a couple hundred dollars you can build something yourself.”

Even with the shipment increases and ease-of-use improvements, don’t expect 3D printers to appear in every house as inkjet printers have.

“There’s a lot of excitement, but there’s a need for a killer app,” said Marco Perry, principal at Pensa, a design consultancy based in Brooklyn, NY that has utilized 3D printers in its work since the 1990s and that last month launched its own 2D DIWire Bender desktop wire bender on Kickstarter, exceeding its full funding goal of $100,000 in one day.

DIWire Bender Pensa Labs
A new archetype for desktop manufacturing and rapid prototyping, the 15×9×7.5-in Pensa Labs DIWire transforms drawn curves into bent wire that can be assembled to make just about anything.
Perry likened the current 3D printer environment to the days of the Apple II in personal computing history. “It seemed really cool and everybody wanted a personal computer in their home. Then all of a sudden Lotus Notes and Microsoft suite started popping up and [a home PC] became very useful,” he said. “That’s where I see us now [with 3D printers]. There’s this promise that there will be one in every home, but maybe there won’t be. Maybe there will be one in every school or one in every small factory for small-scale manufacturing. That’s where I think it’s becoming more interesting.”

Added Perry, there are still technical challenges, not to mention pricing challenges, to overcome before 3D printers become common enterprise and consumer buys.

“If you go to the lower price points, it can be really frustrating. The software is not simple, the steps are not intuitive, the machines can be unreliable, but that’s why they only cost a couple hundred dollars,” he said. “The seamless process is paramount to making it possible. The challenge to a 3D printer is the input. You still have to be able to make a 3D file, which is no small task. Everything is getting a little bit better but that’s some of the challenges.”

Further, noted Eieland, “on the high end, 3D printers need to find a way to start printing harder materials, like metals. On the low end, the price still needs to come down for the professional solutions. A couple thousand dollars for a 3D printer is a lot of money for something used a few hours a month.”

Still, with 3D printers reaching new heights way beyond Yoda busts – everything from creating replacement parts for personal furnishings and gadgets, to replicating vital organs, making their way into space for use on the International Space Station, offering new home construction techniques, and MakerBot on a mission to put a 3D printer in every school – the possibilities for the near-term future are endless.

“I hope people realize the potential of 3D printing,” said Atmel’s Eieland. “It’s more than toys and a small version of their own heads. There’s huge potential here in reducing the waste and turnover of products we have in our houses. At the same time there’s an even bigger opportunity in developing something –  whatever they need so they can stick with what they have.”

Also watching:
  • Personal cloud: As users access their clouds through more devices, “clouds” become less personal and device driven and more services oriented. The specifics of devices will become less important. People will utilize "a collection of devices, with the PC remaining one of many options, but no one device will be the primary hub," Garter reports. "Access to the cloud and the content stored or shared from the cloud will be managed and secured, rather than solely focusing on the device itself."
  • Evolution in user experience: As HTML5 gains traction, so will the browser as a mainstream enterprise application development environment. Developers should focus on creating expanded user interface models including richer voice and video that can connect people in new and different ways. The use of smaller, more targeted applications will continue to grow, while the use more comprehensive platforms will fall. No single tool will be optimal for all types of mobile application so expect to utilize several. The next evolution in user experience will be to leverage intent, inferred from emotion and actions, to motivate changes in end-user behavior.


Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2014:

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