3D printers: Almost mainstream

Creating three-dimensional objects on a printer is still complicated, but it's getting easier.

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Penn did not disclose what she paid, but she has the DesignJet 3D color unit, which sells for 16,200 euros, or about $21,000 U.S. The monochrome version of the DesignJet 3D printer sells for 12,500 euros.

In terms of shipments, the market for 3D printers remains relatively small. Unit shipments for professional use grew at a compound annual rate of 37% in 2010, according to Wohlers. This includes usage by industrial engineers, architects, and engineers in traditional markets such as aerospace, consumer products, and electronics. But that 2010 growth amounted to just 6,164 units -- a tiny fraction of the 2D printer market. In 2010, there were over 44 million traditional printers shipped worldwide, according to IDC.

With only 51,000 3D printers sold worldwide since 1988 and 2.7 million solid modeling CAD seats worldwide, Wohlers estimates that there's plenty of room for growth. By 2015, Wohlers expects, shipments of industrial 3D printers will more than double to 15,000 units.

The potential for growth is one reason why Hewlett Packard dipped a toe in the water with the introduction of the DesignJet 3D, which HP sells only in Europe. The printer is a rebranded version of market leader Stratasys' uPrint 3D printer.

A growing hobbyist market has also developed for 3D printers; people use the technology to make everything from toys to drawer pulls. Free 3D modeling tools for hobbyists (see sidebar at right) make the creation process easier, while companies such as MakerBot Industries provide low-cost plastic extrusion, or plastic jet printers.

Manufacturers also offer libraries of preconfigured objects that users can work with. For example, MakerBot offers Thingiverse, a website where users can share objects they've created. Autodesk 123D offers a similar community.

Many personal 3D printers go to educational institutions, rather than homes. "We want to get these into the hands of kids," says MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis. "It gives them access to the raw power of innovation."

Unfortunately, simple 3D design software for home hobbyists isn't suitable for professional use, and professional tools are still quite complicated to use. That leaves a big gap between consumers and industrial designers. "Today you need to be an expert CAD user to create digital content, or you need a fancy scanner to capture 3D geometry of an object you want to print," says Lewis at 3D Systems.

3D racer
The MakerBot 3D printer, which sells for $1,500, makes 3D objects by applying successive layers of molten ABS plastic. While designed for the home/hobby market, professional designers are finding the devices usable for some commercial applications. For example, Smith Engineering used a similar product to build and assemble the parts for a commercial robot prototype.

In 2010, 3D printer vendors shipped 5,978 personal 3D printers -- almost as many as sold into the professional market. But Wohlers doubts that a broad do-it-yourself at-home market will develop for personal 3D printers.

The bigger market, he says, will be the emergence of on-demand manufacturers that use industrial 3D printers or personal 3D printers that cost from $500 to $5,000. They will produce unique one-off or small-quantity items tailored to consumers or businesses that don't want to bother with designing and printing items for themselves, Wohlers says.

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