3D printers: Almost mainstream

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

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FigurePrints sells the characters for about $15 per cubic inch -- and users seem willing to pay. "A common request is for wedding cake toppers," Fries says. "Couples meet in the games and want their characters on top of the wedding cake."

Smith also likes the idea of using 3D printers for one-off or limited-run manufacturing. "We can do small-scale production -- tens of units -- without spending the money on expensive injection-molding tools," he says. But the printer works slowly, producing up to about four runs a day. FigurePrints gets about two products per day from each of its printers.

"If you're trying to manufacture with these machines, throughput is everything," Wohlers says. Using 3D printers successfully in a manufacturing setting will require better automation of both pre-processing and post-processing steps.

3D hand vacuum
This ABS plastic hand vacuum was printed on a Stratasys uPrint 3D printer using fuse deposition modeling, a process that involves heating a plastic filament until it liquefies and sending it through a special syringe-like print head that extrudes it.

Cobb says Stratasys expects to cut total pre- and post-processing time for a typical print job in half, from 5 hours today to about 2.5 hours within the next three years, and for prices to drop from today's $15,000 for its entry-level professional printer to between $7,000 and $10,000 in that same time frame. "In three to five years, you will have the same capabilities for under $5,000," he says.

In the personal printer space, says Lewis at 3D Systems, prices will drop even further. "In the next year or two, you will see us go past the $1,000 mark. In two years, we'll be close to $500," she says.

How much the market will grow as prices continue to drop, and whether a mass market will ever emerge, is an open question. But as easy-to-use 3D design tools get better, and as shared 3D object libraries grow in size and sophistication, businesses and consumers may come up with new applications for the technology that haven't yet been envisioned. "3D printing is where the semiconductor business was in the 1960s," Wohlers says. "We know it is going to be big, but we don't know how big."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch or subscribe to Rob's RSS feed . His email address is rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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