The 2014 CES will be remembered as the year when 3-D printing arrived. Sure, there were plenty of grizzled veterans around who were willing to point out, as 3-D Systems’ Avi Reichental did, that “3-D printing is an overnight success 30 years in the making.”
But on the other hand, there was poster-boy Bre Pettis observing that five years ago, “MakerBot was the only 3-D printing company at CES.” This year, CEA opened a zone of show floor dedicated to 3-D printing for the first time—it promptly sold out, had more space added, and then sold out again. (MakerBot itself announced no less than three new printer models at the show.)
However, many technologies have had notable arrivals at CES following years of patient nurturing, only to fall by the wayside—3-D TV, HD DVD, and the MiniDisc are just a few examples that spring to mind. So what are 3-D printing’s prospects like outside the CES bubble?
The Competition Heats Up
First, in the next few years, expect to see a brutal culling of the eager startups who were filling the booths on the show floor. One reason is that 3-D printing has evolved from its roots in the volunteer maker movement into a highly competitive business, with much less room for error. Another is that many of these startups are chasing the market for domestic 3-D printers with cheap and cheerful machines. But, in absence of a “killer app” for personal printing, the home market is further off than the hype would suggest, and so many of their efforts will likely prove premature.
But there is reason to believe that 3-D printing will begin to infiltrate the mainstream, with success belonging to products and services that focus on the object being made, rather than the hobbyist’s thrill in the futuristic manner of how it was made. 3-D printing services company Sculpteo, for example, often combines 3-D printing with more mundane manufacturing methods, such as casting, in order to produce highly-finished objects in a much wider range of materials than the plastics used in many printers. 3-D Systems offers a booth that scans your face, so if can be printed on one of a number of Star Trek figurines. And Mcor Technologies uses an innovative paper-based process that allows objects to emerge with photo-realistic color: it’s teamed with Staples to develop an in-store retail 3-D printing service.
Once it’s commonplace for a wedding cake to topped with complex 3-D designs made out of sugar, for full-color busts of family members (even unborn ones) to become as normal as awkward portraits, and for every child to own a toy with their own face, the ground will be prepared for moving these devices towards the dream of home production.
The Era of Mass Customization
But in the interim years, 3-D printing could still have a big impact on manufacturing, by enabling the continued rise of mass customization, where each customer gets to pick their own combination of features for a basic underlying object, such as a shoe or smartphone. Mass customization solves one the big challenges for 3-D printing, which is that most people are not familiar with the modeling tools needed to create objects from scratch. (Although 3-D printer manufacturers are eager to get schoolchildren engaged with the technology in the hopes of bringing up a population of “print natives” within a generation.) But allowing customers to adjust a few parameters gives them enough control to take ownership of a design, without overwhelming them. If every object is a one-off, then 3-D printing would have an edge over traditional mass production technologies.
Even in traditional mass production, 3-D printing is beginning to find applications, albeit at the small scale. Chris Milnes, who sells a widget for Square credit card readers through retail channels, has turned his home into a bot farm for all his manufacturing. And Sculpteo, which announced new software-assisted batch control technology, has printed as many as 21,000 copies of a part for a company that was at risk of missing the release date for a product because the component couldn’t be made and shipped in time using conventional injection molding techniques.
Perhaps most interesting of all the visions of the future of 3-D printing given at CES was that provided by IBM’s Paul Brady, who discussed the results of a study that looked at the impact of 3-D printing in combination with two other technological movements—advanced robotics and open source software. A mutually reinforcing interplay between these three domains could mean that in a matter of decades the higher labor costs associated with manufacturing in the developed world would be greatly diminished, leaving transportation to stand as a significant portion of the cost. In such a world, even for non-customized objects, such as appliances, it would no longer make sense to manufacture products in one continent and ship them to another. Eventually, it wouldn’t make sense to ship objects beyond a few hours drive.
But one thing remains clear from this year’s CES: if we can just stop virtually every 3-D printing entrepreneur opening their presentation with a slide of Henry’s Ford’s Model T assembly line, then future of the industry will be brighter already.
Stephen Cass is the special projects editor at IEEE Spectrum. He currently helms Spectrum's Hands On column, and is also responsible for interactive projects such as the Top Programming Languages app. He has a bachelor's degree in experimental physics from Trinity College Dublin.