3D printing: A technology awaits its iPad moment

The idea of creating your own plastic objects using a 3D printer is very cool. Imagine, for example, being able to print Christmas gifts at home. Looking for a special toy? No need to visit the toy store when you can download that race car design file from a library of toys on the Internet and send it to your 3D printer. Or perhaps you'd like to customize the item first by opening the file in a simple 3D modeling program and add a few personal touches. That's the vision.

The reality is a bit different.

Two things are keeping 3D printers from going mainstream. One is technical. The other has to do with a lack of imagination. As with the tablet PC, 3D printing technology awaits its iPad moment when everything comes together.

By using a technique very similar to ink jet technology, 3D printers can build virtually any object by printing it using molten plastic ink or other materials, one layer at a time (see the comparison chart of 3D printing devices). The prices for these devices, which at one time cost $100,000 or more, are now available to hobbyists for under $1,500 -- and $500 models aren't far off. Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president at market research firm Wohlers Associates, says low end printers in the $100 to $200 range for use by children are just around the corner.

Of course, you'll need to buy the "ink" for your 3D printer. Today, operating costs can be as low as $2.50 per cubic inch of material used. That's still expensive when compared to, say, a mass-produced, injection molded plastic action figure, but its not bad at all for custom or one-off items.

There are also more practical uses for the technology. Imagine parts libraries that are as common on the Web as user manual PDFs are for consumer products. Need a hose attachment for your Sears canister vacuum? Download the object file from Searspartsdirect.com and send it to your printer. That ecosystem of objects isn't available today, but online communities are already building and sharing all sorts of objects that are freely available for download at sites such as Autodesk 123D Gallery and Thingiverse.

Stuck in a niche

Today, however, 3D printers are still very much a niche market. In 2010, just 5,978 units were sold, compared to tens of millions of 2D printers, according to Wohlers and IDC.

What would it take for the technology to break into the mainstream? Support for full color would help. Today most printers allow objects to be rendered in only one color at a time.

Better tools are also needed. The design and editing process isn't as consumer friendly as it could be. While downloading pre-designed objects is easy, creating new or editing existing 3D design files to produce a viable 3D objects is still tricky, and complex objects require professional-grade tools that are difficult for nonprofessionals to use. There's little middle ground today, although vendors are hard at work trying to make the high-end tools easier and the low-end tools more capable as well as user friendly. (See 3D design gets easier. The text box appears midway down the page.)

Users can also make a copy of an object suitable for 3D printing by using a 3D scanning process called photogrammetry. But that requires extra equipment and software, and it's not exactly an easy process for the home user today.

Some analysts doubt that the at-home 3D printer market will ever emerge. Instead, they say, service bureaus will build those custom parts or toys for you, whether it's a custom figurine or a part for your vacuum cleaner.

Imagine what comes next

Today 3D printers in the home are a device in search of a niche. But the day may be not be far off when the operating software is intuitive and easy to use, when 3D object stores become the app stores of 3D printing, and when online editing services associated with those object stores customize a selected item to your specifications and return the file to you for final printing at home or in the office. In this way won't have to change the file yourself if you don't want to. And you won't have to wait 3-5 days for a service bureau to turn the job and around and ship it back to you when, gosh, it's already December 24th.

The consumerization of 3D could also fuel growth in the business market for use of 3D printers by marketing people and others who aren't trained industrial designers with expertise in using advanced 3D modeling tools. "The demand for 3D printed products among non-professionals is developing," says Wohlers. "It will be much larger than the professional market."

Everyone is going to feel the impact of 3D printing in some way, Wohlers says. He compares the state of the 3D printing industry to where the semiconductor industry was in the 1960s. They knew it was going to be big, he says. "But we didn't know where it was going to go."

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