What is 3D printing?

Welcome to the 21st century version of Star Trek's replicators

3D printers are the hottest new technology on the IT landscape. Everyone --users and vendors alike-- wants a piece of the pie and, with 3D systems now printing candy and food, they could get their wish; that is, an actual, edible piece of pie.

Why are 3D printers so popular? Because they are the 21st century version of Star Trek's replicators and they can, literally, print (or replicate) anything from a piece of pumpkin pie to a full-blown multi-story house.

Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo., has identified more than 50 additive manufacturing and 3D printing companies. A report from 3ders.org lists more than 230 printers and printer kits starting at $199 and ranging all the way up to $330,000 or more. On this list, the average 3D printer price is $2,346; not much more than a high-end color laser printer and certainly not out of reach for most users.

Origins and technologies

The most common 3D printer technologies, thus far, are fused deposition modeling (aka fused filament fabrication), stereolithography, digital light processing, selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, selective laser melting, selective heat sintering, laminated object manufacturing, and polyjet 3D printing.

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There are other, similar technologies available and many more on the horizon as independent entrepreneurs and Kickstarter candidates continue to research, design, and develop new ways to create three dimensional objects from pools of plastic, polymer resins, powdered products, sand, glass, food substances, and liquid metals such as stainless steel, cobalt chromium, titanium, aluminum, and nickel, silver, and gold alloys.

In a nutshell, 3D printers are simplified versions of rapid prototyping machines, which have been around since the early 1980s, only smaller, cheaper, and less complicated. However, as the pool of inventors expands, the lines between rapid prototyping and 3D printing are becoming more and more blurred. The smaller, cheaper 3D machines are using more varieties of materials and some of the larger rapid prototyping machines are getting smaller and costing less. For example, Michigan Technological University has just unveiled a new, open-source 3D metal printer that sells for only $1,500. And Makerbot's Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer (which sells for $2,899) can print a functioning, mechanical, 3D-printed hand called the Robohand. Makerbot also sells a mini version of this same printer for $1,375.

How it works

The process of each 3D technology (also called additive manufacturing) is fairly similar. Objects are designed with a CAD-like software program, then sliced into extremely thin layers (like slicing a loaf of bread). The machines then spray, squeeze, or dribble the material onto a base, one layer at a time, fusing these together with heat until the object is formed. Some machines extrude a filament of plastic materials through a nozzle and build the objects on a platform from the bottom up. Some build the objects in a tray of powder or liquid and the platform lowers as each layer is applied, building from the top down.

Some use lasers, such as selective laser melting (SLM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and selective laser sintering (SLS); some fuse the materials together, such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) and fused filament fabrication (FFF); some cure liquids as in stereolithography (SLA); and some use a lamination process called laminated object manufacturing (LOM), where thin layers are sliced and then laminated together using papers, polymers, and/or metals. Each process has its own unique set of challenges and its own bundle of benefits.

Accuracy, materials, cost, and production time generally determine which printer an individual or company chooses.

Draw it or scan it

Most all 3D printers come with their own proprietary 3D design software, most are compatible with a number of CAD/CAM programs, and Adobe's new Creative Cloud includes Photoshop CC, Adobe's radically simplified 3D modeling software. Other independent programs include Autodesk 123D family of products, SketchUp, Maya, Form Z, Bonzi3D, TinkerCad, etc., plus a number of open source options.

3D scanners, which also play an important role in this new economy, are an easy solution for replicating an existing product or design. Makerbot's Digitizer Desktop 3D scanner (looks like a small, open DVD player) is easy to use (no design or 3D modeling skills necessary). Users see results in two clicks -- from original object to scanned file; but cost, including software, is a hefty $1,099.

Cubify's Sense 3D scanner is a handheld device that looks like a rectangular flashlight with a grip through the center. Because it's small and portable, this device can scan anything from a coffee mug to a motorcycle. The Sense 3D scanner fully integrates with Cubify's Sculpt software and cost only $399. And, like 3D printers, these scanners come in all shapes, sizes, and prices.  

Print your next car or build a 2,500-square-foot house in 20 hours

There will always be a need for the giant 3D rapid prototyping machines because precision, size, and complex materials are required for many of the items produced in the aerospace, medical, architecture, automotive, and defense industries. For example, the Urbee 2, a hybrid car that gets hundreds of miles to the gallon was created on the Stratasys Dimension 3D and Fortus 3D production printers. But the biggest project, so far, is Contour Crafting's first, and only, 3D printed house.

Owned and developed by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California, this automated construction of civil structures includes actual life size, inhabitable buildings. Khoshnevis says, "We have built sections of buildings. But it has been logistically difficult to build a complete house because, if we build one in the lab, we will not be able to build anything else, hence we would have to demolish the house and remove it from the lab. However, we will soon attempt it once we secure a site in an open field and obtain the permit from authorities to build complete buildings."

These types of printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- not in the price range of most techies, but some of these systems print custom orders; that is, you create your own custom-designed products and they print them for you (at sites like shapeways.com). Some can be rented such as, for example, Professor Khoshnevis' $500,000 construction printer. Even if it cost $6,000 a day, your house would be complete in 20 hours, so that's cheap for a complete house.

But Khoshnevis also has other plans. In his vision, the technology would be used to renew the world's slums and repair areas destroyed by natural disasters. "Robot construction is cheaper, stronger, faster, safer, and more eco-friendly than manual construction," says Khoshnevis. "And the technology could also be used to build lunar habitats, laboratories, roads, and bridges on the Moon or Mars; structures that would eventually house humans, or even full colonies."

In addition to tools, jewelry, clothes, cars, and even houses, another big industry for 3D printing is food. Hershey and 3D Systems have partnered to create chocolates in various designs and shapes for Hershey's customers across the country; and its ChefJet printer makes an endless assortment of confectionate goodies for custom candies, cake decorations, party favors, and more. Another company called Natural Machines (headquartered in Barcelona Spain) has a machine called the Foodini that can 3D print everything from pizza to quiche to vegetarian bean burgers. Even NASA has joined the 3D printing food craze. Last year, they awarded a research contract to a company in Austin, Texas, called Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to study the possibilities of creating healthy, delicious 3D foods for the astronauts. Restaurants and bakeries across the globe (such as the Moto Restaurant in Chicago and Dos Cielos in Barcelona) are already experimenting and/or using 3D printers in their kitchens -- right between the microwave and the convection oven.

Will this technology kill jobs?

According to Gartner's 2014 Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users report; by 2018, 3D printing will cost $100 billion per year in intellectual property loss, globally. The same report also says that "by 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies."

But Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner, doesn't necessarily agree with that sweeping prediction. "There are certain items, many items, that will never be replaced by 3D printing because it's more cost effective to make them in long runs. For example, a company such as Nike will continue to manufacturer large volumes of running shoes in low-labor-cost countries because that's the model and most people are willing to accept the same running shoe as everyone else but -- for the niche runners who may be elite athletes, or others who have unique footsteps, or those with a physical disability -- Nike has the capacity to make custom 3D soles and other such parts. So, while we'll always have long-run manufacturing, there are also niche applications that 3D printing is ideally suited for, and it's really the only practical way to meet these custom needs."

Disruptive technologies attorney Paul Banwatt adds, "I was surprised by Gartner's $100 billion number; my own view is more optimistic. If there really are enough 3D printers out there to commit that level of IP theft, there is even more potential value. But I don't believe that the primary purpose of 3D printers is to commit IP theft, just as the primary purpose of personal computers was not to break the law, even though many computers are used to do so. Current and potential IP rights-holders should be thinking about their 3D IP portfolios and getting creative with new opportunities, such as authorized community participation in customized product designs and accessories, created by the ability to scan and print 3D objects at low cost."

Future 3D

Basiliere predicts that enterprise-class desktop 3D printers will be available for less than $2,000 by 2016 and that seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3D printers online and/or in their physical locations early next year. Some of the superstores such as Staples, for example, are already stocking and selling 3D printers. More will follow soon. Gartner also predicts that shipments will nearly double every year through 2017, then more than double each year thereafter.

"This new industrial revolution (also a book by Chris Anderson) is about the 'Maker' community -- a term Anderson popularized -- which is also about those individuals who are extreme enthusiasts and brilliant hobbyists who like making things--not only with 3D printers, but with other tools as well," adds Basiliere.

"It's a growing universe of people who are interested in making all things, every things -- just as some of the patents of the material extrusion technologies are rolling off. But 3D printers are just the beginning, and what a place to begin. In their world, anything is possible and nothing is broken. But if it does break, they just 3D print another one. They even created a printer that can make its own 3D replacement parts. Now that's real progress."

Julie Sartain is a technology/computer journalist from Salt Lake City, Utah. She can be reached at julesds@comcast.net.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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