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Three Things You Need to Know About 3D Printing

Published on Jul 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm in Tech Trends.

This post also appeared in The Tennessean, where Concept Technology has a bi-weekly feature in the Business section.

Need a new smartphone case, lamp or spare part for your car? What about an iPad stand, toothbrush holder or statement piece of jewelry? Sure, you could go out and buy these things, but why bother when you can print them yourself?

Three-D printing is an emerging technology that will democratize the way we manufacture. It has already made a significant impact on many industries, including automotive and health care, and soon 3-D printers will be as common as inkjet printers in the home.

Here are three things you need to know about 3-D printing:

The commercial applications are limitless.

Only the creativity of our entrepreneurs and leaders limits the future business applications of 3-D printing. For example, currently, the California company Ekso Bionics uses 3-D printing to create exoskeletons that let people with congenital conditions and lower extremity paralysis walk and move their limbs again.

In a 3-D printing example that’s both fascinating and troubling, in May, Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, designed and posted blueprints for a 3-D-printable handgun online. Within a week, the State Department demanded the blueprints be removed. Although the cat is out of the bag on this one — once something has been posted on the internet, it will always be available on the internet — further legislation regarding this issue is sure to come.

You’ll own a 3-D printer, and sooner than you think.

Technology research firm Gartner recently predicted that by 2016, 3-D printers will cost less than a PC, and that enterprises and home consumers alike will be able to purchase one for less than $2,000. That means that while you’re camped out on the couch with a beer watching the Rio Olympics’ gold-medal soccer match, you could also be printing a custom chess set in the next room.

3D chess setThere was a time when only your geeky neighbor owned a home computer, and no one believed that the technology would go mainstream. Today, not only do the majority of U.S. households have a computer — 75.6 percent in 2011, according to the Census Bureau — but also most households contain multiple computers, smartphones and tablet devices.

In 1994, when Hewlett-Packard introduced the first color laser printer to the market, its sticker price came in at $7,295, or $11,127 when adjusted for today’s inflation. Today, a color laser printer will only set you back a couple hundred bucks. As the cost of 3-D printers also drops, home usage will skyrocket.

Entrepreneurs, local governments, nonprofits and established companies alike are jumping onboard to help bring down the cost of 3-D printing.

  • A Kickstarter campaign called Buccaneer raised $1.4 million in a month to “bring 3-D printing technology into everyone’s home by building a quality and affordable 3-D printer.” Another Kickstarter, Filabot, aimed to decrease the cost of pricey 3-D printing filament through recycling.
  • In June, the Chicago Public Library opened its Maker Lab to house three 3-D printers which patrons can tinker with and master by taking classes and workshops to create personal projects.
  • Microsoft lent its support to the 3-D movement by announcing that Windows 8.1 would be the first operating system to support 3-D printing. General manager of Microsoft’s Startup Business Group Shanen Boettcher said: “Our thinking was, let’s make (3-D printing) as easy as writing and printing a Word document.” Amazon also recently dedicated a section of its site to selling 3-D printers.

MakerBotIt’s easy, but not that easy.

On the downside, the current process to print a 3-D object isn’t necessarily hard, but it’s a bit clunky and requires some engineering and design skills. You’ll need a 3-D printer like MakerBot Replicator 2, which was introduced in September 2012.

To design, you’ll need computer-assisted design software such as CAD. You’ll then have to convert your designs into specialty 3-D printer software. Or you can just skip this step and buy and download a design from a 3-D marketplace like Shape­ways.

Also, while 3-D printing is a great option for prototyping and manufacturing low-volume items, it’s not effective for mass production, at least not in the foreseeable future. Another concern is intellectual property rights — if you can create it, why buy it?