Remember the Replicator on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series? The crew of the Enterprise could tell the machine what they wanted, and pretty much anything—food, useful items, you name it—would pop out.
That seemed like the stuff of fantasy at the time, but the idea of a household machine that can make three-dimensional stuff has become a reality—maybe not on a Star Trek level, and no food (yet), but it’s getting there—and its name is 3D printing.
This bold, exciting technology, which has gotten a lot of press attention recently, was the focus of a June 26 CNET supersession held during CE Week in New York City.
The panel featured key representatives from four companies at the cutting edge of 3D printer production: Keith Ozar, Director of Cubify Marketing, 3D Systems Corp.; Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and Co-Founder, Shapeways; and Sam Cervantes, Founder, Solidoodle.
Just Make It
The first topic discussed was the relevancy of 3D printing in today’s marketplace, voiced in the question “Why should consumers care?”
“It’s really empowering,” Ozar said of the technology. “You realize you don’t have to buy something—you can just make it. It’s unique and personalized.”
Ozar discussed the ongoing evolution of apps and software that will improve the performance and user-friendliness of 3D printing: “These will make millions of people able to customize and personalize for themselves, applications where you can build LEGO on the screen, and then press print. 3D printing is so universal. (Individuals) and their skills are going to determine where it goes.”
“3D printing allows you to unleash your inner creativity,” said Cervantes, who focused on another facet of the technology: its green benefits. “It will allow us to lead smarter, more sustainable lives. We have 6 billion people on this planet. We need to use our new tech to create more sustainable products.”
He offered, as an example, an iPhone case, which travels “all the way around the world” before reaching a consumer. “With 3D printing, you could grow the plastic material in your backyard and make it with your 3D printer,” saving resources (as well as dollars) by virtually eliminating the product’s carbon footprint.
Will They Buy It?
But will these advantages—customization, sustainability, etc.—resonate with consumers, and motivate them to buy 3D printers?
“I’m still not convinced it’s a mass-market product,” stated panel moderator and CNET Executive Editor Paul Sloan. “How do you make consumers think it’s relevant, and something they want to have?”
Ozar compared the technology to the sewing machine—something the buying public was slow to accept at first that became a household staple. “There’s a huge potential for this—creating food … medical applications … invisible retainers.” He added that while 3D printing is commonly believed to have come out in the past few years, it’s actually not a new technology, saying “it’s been around for 30 years.
“It might not be for everybody,” he continued. “But the opportunity to build a toy for a dollhouse for your daughter (would be tremendous). … We have these for a reason. We’re creators.”
Weijmarshausen cited the ability to make products efficiently as a key selling point of the tech. “But there’s a downside,” he added. “They all look the same. … We need to make it relevant; we need to make it affordable.”
“How is Solidoodle going to bring 3D printing to the mass market?” Cervantes asked. “I think it is something we’re doing already. Our printers are affordable (retailing from $499 to $699) and easy to use, with a one-click software installer. We expect our products to become more affordable and easy.”
Ozar spoke of his products’ compact design: “Ours is a machine with no exposed wires. It’s smaller than regular printers, and weighs nine pounds. It’s a cartridge-based system (that offers) plug and play simplicity.”
One issue that the panelists had contrasting viewpoints on was something that typically comes up with new technologies: the question of standardization.
Presently, 3D printers work in a variety of ways, using different kinds of raw material to produce objects. There is no standard source material or mode of operation. It’s a free-form industry with each manufacturer coming up with its own proprietary means and materials.
“We need to keep this innovation as open as possible,” said Weijmarshausen. “I think if you keep standards as open as possible, that drives innovation—and everybody benefits from innovation.”
“We regularly use our (proprietary) filament (in our printers),” Cervantes said. “But you can use other materials. If you want to, you can experiment and use other things. I think that’s a gateway to innovation.”
Weijmarshausen cited digital scanning as a technology that will drive that innovation. “If people can express what they want in digital file form, you can make it on a 3D printer,” he said. “Scanning can help.”
The Future of 3D Printing
Does 3D printing have a future, or will it get a cold reception at retail, as other 3D home technologies have? The panelists felt the future for this tech is dazzlingly bright.
“This is taking off,” Cervantes said. “It’s going to be really big. There’s going to be a 3D printer in every home.”
Weijmarshausen predicted that in the next three to five years, a high percentage of parts needed to fix household items will be produced using 3D printers, as the technology gets more popular and its material prices go down.
“The novelty will wear off,” said Ozar, who predicted that the apps and software currently in development will drive massive growth at retail for 3D printing.
Future generations, he said, will embrace this technology: “We’ll see kids who will build things (with 3D printing), but 10 years from now, they will build infrastructure.”