Is 2013 the Year of 3D Printing?

Engadget is a great source of tech news, and sometimes they host talks called Expand where savvy speakers are invited to discuss their relative expertise. Yesterday those speakers were Abe Reichental, President and CEO of 3D Systems, Hod Lipson, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, and Max Lobovsky, Co-Founder of FormLabs. It’s a bit long, but definitely worth the watch, especially since I won’t be able to cover everything said.

Abe first points out that, so far, most of the world-changing effects of 3D printing have occurred in various commercial industries, such as aerospace, implants, and hearing aids; the dental shaping company Invisalign is built entirely around 3D printing, printing some 65,000 aligners a day. He then explained that next-generation jet engines are expected to achieve 20% to 30% efficiency gains due to 3D printing. In the commercial world there are over 150 materials to choose from, ranging from polymers, to rubbers and metals, whereas most consumer-level printers are still working with just two, ABS and PLA. To really get consumers comfortable with 3D printing, Abe says the UX (user experience) is going to have to improve to the point that users can operate the printers with no prior knowledge of 3D printing and how it works.

Hod then made the fitting analogy that 3D printing is now in the phase that computers went through in the ‘70s, going from mainframes to kit desktop systems. It wasn’t until Macintosh and Microsoft integrated everything into easy-to-use boxes that desktop computing entered suburban households. Now almost everyone has a computer in their pocket.

Abe elaborated that it isn’t just 3D printing that’s enabling itself; he explained that a convergence of four technologies is really accelerating the trend, those being cloud computing, mobile devices, cheap and precise sensors, and robotics. They’re all synergizing to unlock creativity for everyone, including children.

Hod went on to say that the open source Cornell [email protected] project has been shut down, as it accomplished its task, but that work in the lab continues, now focusing on printing foods and robots that will walk right out of the printer. Hod’s mentioning of printing with chocolate caused Abe to chime in that he was inspired by that, and that 3D Systems has plans to release a chocolate printer later this year (do want!).

Max didn’t have much to say except that he thought he’d missed the 3D printing boat after the MakerBot and Cube came out, but then he realized that a refined unit and user experience was still missing, which led to the Form 1. I did find it interesting seeing Abe and Max talking on the same stage as if 3D Systems doesn’t have a suit against Formlabs for patent infringement.

Abe and Hod agreed that it’s innovation, and not replication, that’s going to bring 3D printing into everyone’s home; makers should devote energy to inventing instead of waiting for patents to expire. There was a lot of talk around democratizing 3D printing, especially with improving the object creation facet. Despite some oddly fearing it, 2013 may well be a transitional year for personal 3D printing. I’ll let you watch the video to hear what they think the next 20 years looks like.

Source: Engadget