The 3D printing market is on the verge of going ballistic in the areas of price, materials, and concepts. I spent time on the exhibit floors and media events at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week and the implications are staggering.
I'll begin at retail and the sub-$500 price point. Established 3D and start-ups are gunning to get into mass market outlets such as Best Buy, Costco, Radio Shack and Walmart, establishing a foothold for products before a name brand or two moves beyond 2D laser paper and into 3D hot marketness. It is going to be a classic race, pitting funding, technology development, and marketing to build awareness and market share.
At first glance, XYZ Printing and its da Vinci line of printers would appear have an edge. The company already has a couple of printers shipping, including an all-in-one (AIO) model that can scan an object before printing. Da Vinci lists at $499 fully assembled, available for pre-order now with delivery in the spring. There also the da Vinci Junior floating around at $349 and scheduled to be available in May. Both models use plastic filament (think plastic string on a reel) to create models.
New Matter collected a CES 2015 Innovation Award for its MOD-t 3D printer. The company started up out of Idealab and the Silicon Valley-backed firm boasts support from Frog Ventures, Alsop-Louie and a couple of venture capital firms. MOD-t 3D is expected to ship in the spring for the magic price of $349. It boasts a library of free designs and a suite of software tools to make 3D printing easy and interactive. There's a certain swagger at New Matter that I suspect is justified.
My hometown dark horse is M3D with its $349 Micro 3D printer. Started up by University of Maryland College Park graduates Michael Armani and David Jones, M3D raised a whopping $3.4 million through Kickstarter to start operations and is in the process of building a production factory in Maryland to fulfill orders. The Micro is among the most space-efficient 3D printers built, using carbon fiber rods in its mechanisms rather than steel rods or plastic. It's a sweet product, but M3D will have to step up its marketing and product game if it is going to hang with XYZ, New Matter, and over the long haul.
You can print more than plastic with 3D printers, the second major theme out of CES. Hershey and 3D Systems promoted CoCo Jet, a device aimed at the culinary world. Custom designs can be printed in white, milk or dark chocolate. There's also the 3D Systems ChefJet series of printers that can crank out edible candies and will be available in the second half of 2015. Alton Brown and the Food Channel are, no doubt, drooling in anticipation.
But you can also use paper, yes, the exact stuff you feed the laser printer, as a material. MCor Technologies essentially pulps standard white office paper, mixes it with a form of wood glue, and then uses it to build 3D objects. MCor boasts it is environmentally friendly – no plastics – and is able to blend in ink into the paper to provide high resolution, nuanced color on all sides of the object being built. An MCor object feels like wood and the detail is astonishing. But the "professional shop" printer lists at $50,000. Fortunately, paper is cheap and can easily be acquired by running to Staples or raiding the (laser) printer.
You can also feed stock plastic printers more exotic fare. Proto-pasta makes unique blends of 3D filament incorporating stainless steel, magnetic iron, carbon fiber, and conductive filaments. Steel makes heavier, sturdier objects than stock plastic, iron can be rusted for visual effect, carbon fiber adds strength while conductive filament enables makers to print support for simple electronic circuits in larger projects. Proto conductive sample projects include a flashlight, a stylus pen for use with touchscreens and a game controller.
For more elaborate projects, Autodesk and Voxel8 announced a full-blown 3D electronics printer. Using a combination of silver ink printing and thermoplastic printing, the $9,000 Voxel8 Development Kit printer will enable designers to integrate electronics directly into 3D printed structures. Shipping starts in "late 2015," with Autodesk providing support through its Project Wire 3D printed electronics software.
Finally, if you need to 3D print big, 3DP Unlimited has a 1 meter by 1 meter by 0.5 meter large print area device that costs less than $20,000 dollars. In comparison to the smaller printers on the market that print hand-held trinkets, the 3DP large format printer can crank full-size models of engine blocks, wheel rims and even chairs. The items are impressive, but the print times for larger items run to hundreds of hours. For instance, the red chair took 555 hours to print. A power outage during the print run has the potential to ruin the item, so a judicious of UPS and other techniques are required to prevent disaster on big pieces.
Images courtesy of Doug Mohney
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