3D printing is a notion that has captured the attention of many with its science fiction connotations. But 3D printing is an important concept not just for its current capabilities, but for the future potential of the technology. Here are a number of trends that will shape 3D printing and its place within the tech industry.
The Rise of Printing as a Service
Many people are intrigued by the possibilities of 3D printing, but are hesitant to invest the significant capital required to buy a 3D printer of their own. This growing population will be well-met by companies that offer 3D printing as a service. Shapeways, a startup that offers a wide range of 3D printing options online, has already found success in the market and with venture capital investors. You can expect companies like this to grow as a result of a public that is becoming more familiar with the notion of 3D printing, and is eager for an incremental way to incorporate 3D printing into their lives.
Open Source Objects
3D printed objects are becoming more functional over time. The medium is moving from being a prototyping tool to a manufacturing process that can create durable, functional goods. We are already starting to see the first wave of functional objects whose designs and schematics are being uploaded to the internet for free. Given the energy around the open source movement, it seems likely that the concept of open source will soon extend out of software and tech hardware into the design of everyday items. This trend will open many legal ambiguities and battles around design copyright and intellectual property, a common side-effect disruptive technologies.
Along with 3D printing, 3D scanning is a relatively new area of technology that shows a great deal of promise. Much like 3D printing, 3D scanning is being developed along a number of different approaches with various methods and technologies, ranging prom lasers, to X-ray to contact techniques. The combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing opens up some interesting possibilities akin to the idea of photocopying, but for 3D objects. Much like the idea of an open source object, object photocopying will create many legal complications as the technology develops. Though currently it is a slow, costly and relatively ineffective way to replicate an object, look for the combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing to continue to develop, and perhaps become a viable production method in the future.
New Materials: Food?
One of the biggest areas of development in 3D printing has been in the materials used to form printed objects. Over the years, major improvements have been made in photopolymers and thermoplastics, two of the major raw materials in 3D printing. Materials are now stronger, almost rivaling the tensile strength of injection molded plastics, and come in a variety of material options. Recent innovations have also vastly improved 3D printing with metals and ceramics. One interesting innovation has been 3D printing with food. For example, the widely available Fab@Home open source printer can work with edible materials from peanut butter to processed cheese. Innovation in materials is one of the most exciting areas of 3D printing, and the most likely to drive its large scale acceptance among consumers.
With all of the media hype and innovation in 3D printing, its quite easy to get caught up and develop unrealistic expectations over the current state of the technology. As more and more consumers are inspired by the idea of 3D printing, people will face the current limitations of the medium, and those expectations may come back down to earth. 3D printing still needs refinement in its materials, finish, durability, cost and speed among other areas before it can meet with the intense expectations of a media-hyped public. Despite the reality of 3D printing not quite living up to the hype, it is an area of some of the most intense innovation and energy in the tech sector. Even based on the promise of some of the far-off goals of 3D printing, it is an area that will be worth attention and investment for many years to come.