Trends in 3D Printing

A Discussion of Development

3D Printer Printing Skull
3D Printer Printing Skull. Andrzej Wojcicki/Getty Images

3D Printing

3D printing is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. It's also called additive manufacturing because the three dimensional solid is created by the printer by laying down successive layers of material. Each of these layers is a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

3D printing is a concept 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.

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 professional, large-scale 3D printer of their own. This growing population will be well-met by companies that offer 3D printing as a service. Shapeways is one of the original vendors to offer a wide range of 3D printing options online. 

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.

Object Photocopying

Similar to 3D printing, 3D scanning is a relatively new area of technology that shows a great deal of promise. Also like 3D printing, 3D scanning is being developed along a number of different approaches with a range of technologies, from lasers, to X-ray to surface contact techniques. Much like the idea of an open source object, object photocopying will create many legal complications as the technology develops. Look for the combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing to continue to develop, and become a viable production method.

New Materials 

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. 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.

Realistic Expectations

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 the intense expectations of a media-hyped public. 3D printing is an area of some of the most intense innovation and energy in the tech sector.  

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