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    The State of 3D Printing

    Written by

    Derek Mead

    Editor-In-Chief

    Here at CES, 3D printing is a Big Deal. Seriously, the capitalization is warranted: additive manufacturing businesses have their own corral at the show, and it's full of a few dozen firms of varying size. What's interesting is that most of those firms are actually selling printers themselves. Unlike, say, the smartphone market, which has relatively few producers of actual phones and a mountain of accessories producers, manufacturers in this space are selling the complete package—3D printers, modeling software, and materials.

    Even so, there's a lot of different approaches in the market, and while covering every single company would involve losing my mind, I pulled out a few notable players—all of whom weren't lame shitbirds, like whichever company was handing out the above flyer.

    3D Systems

    3D Systems has probably the largest booth in the 3D printing area, and had a live cover band playing, so I went to check their stuff out first. The company is launching a pair of new printers this year, the smaller of which is the Cube above, which is coming out in the second quarter for "under $1000," which is cheap. The Cube can print objects as large as six inches cubed. Perhaps most notably, the printer can print two colors at a time, out of 23 choices in either ABS or PLA plastic. 

    More fun for me is the company's Sense 3D scanner, which is on the market now for around $399. It's essentially a wand that can scan objects or people, so naturally I had to test it out. Pretty cool, right? A rep scanned a circle around my head, then went over my crown and face for good measure. According to another 3D Systems rep who stopped by to watch, the scanner works by scanning data points in infrared, which is then compiled using the company's software.

    While I essentially came out looking like a Goldeneye 64 character, the worst of the blobs and weird abberations can be edited in the software. The rep was impressed with how well my mustache was rendered, because apparently the scanner has trouble with hair. I'm really proud of that.

    Better yet, my disembodied head made it on TV. Aside from the Cube, 3D Systems is also launching the Cube Pro, which is similar to the Cube, but can print up to 10 inch cubes. The Cube Pro has options for single, double, or triple jets, which can print the corresponding number of colors per object. The neat thing about the system, according to the company, is that the jets and plastic filament spools are one unit, so clogs or color overrun during color swaps are largely a thing of the past.

    DWS Lab

    At the more high-end of the market is DWS Lab's XFab laser 3D printer. DWS Lab is an Italian manufacturer that specializes in high-end commercial laser 3D printers; founder Maurizio Costabeber says the firm builds around 250 of those per year.

    The XFab, which launches in the spring for under $5,000, is pretty huge, and can print some pretty advanced (and useful) objects. Costabeber showed me a soft rubber bumper case for an iPhone, while a frame for a set of ski goggles was in the demo machine. Costabeber said that the firm moved towards the prosumer market because he wanted more people to access the tech.

    "We think many customers in this field enjoy the quality and precision of our product, but can't afford pro machines that cost 10 or 20 times more," he said. 

    (I also asked him why every 3D printing company keeps printing Eiffel Towers, and he said that it was a sort of industry benchmark.)

    Out of more than 30 materials used in the industrial operation, the firm picked nine for use in the XFab, which are delivered in cartidges weighing a kilo. Those will retail for between $200 and $400 a pop when the whole system, modeling software including, gets launched in the spring. It's not cheap, but it's a good example of the state of the art for desktop machines—even if "desktop" is used a bit loosely in this case.

    Stratasys

    Stratasys is a major player in the 3D printing game, and is largely focused on industrial and commercial models. The Objet 260 above, for example, is the size of a pretty large copy machine. 

    I asked Jon Cobb, Stratasys's executive VP of marketing, about where his company saw the printing industry moving this year, and he said that his firm is largely focused on continuing to develop the industrial market, whether for rapid prototyping, parts production, or—and I thought this was cool—developing tools and jigs for fabricators. 

    The company is clearly capable of modelling and producing complex parts in single materials. Beyond that, Cobb said it's all about materials, while helping get more 3D printers into schools. "Where we see opportunities is in continuing to grow the education market and new thermal plastics," he said. Cobb said that Stratasys just launched its first nylon material, which is crucial for the commercial market.

    One cool thing he showed is the firm's ability to blend hard and soft materials to create materials with a wide range of hardness. In the photo above, the white material was hard plastic, the black at the other end was floppy and rubbery. By blending the two, the company can print more complex parts. On display, they showed a handle that had a hard, durable shaft with a rubbery grip, as well as a full tire and wheel combo.

    Seeing the capability to print those parts, which traditionally would require making them separately before assembly, is one of those rare times at a massive consumer electronics show where you think about just how cool the future is. And it's not done there. "We're doing two materials today, next we'll be doing three, and then five," said Cobb. He also said he thinks his company is just a couple years out from printing in metal, which is a big leap.

    MakerBot

    MakerBot is the grandaddy of desktop 3D printing, and founder Bre Pettis had a huge queue of media waiting for a chat, as is par for the course. Hardware-wise, MakerBot launched its fifth generation of desktop printers, with a trio of models. (They were housed in a dark room while a video talking about the future played, so excuse the photos.) Front and center is the Replicator, which retails for $2,899 and can print 10x8x6 inch objects. It's a pretty slick device, with a 3.5-inch screen, a camera, and a host of connectivity options. It comes out in February.

    The Replicator Mini is $1,375, can do 4x4x5 inch objects, and lacks a screen. It has a 200-micron resolution, as opposed to 100 for the other two models.

    At the upper end of the range is the Replicator Z18, a device the size of a mini-fridge that can print 12x12x18 inch objects. It'll retail for $6,499 when it comes out in the spring along with the Mini.

    Most interesting to me, however, was MakerBot's emphasis on its digital store, where you can "purchase original, fun, and collectible digital content only for MakerBot Replicator 2 and Fifth Generation MakerBot Replicator 3D Printers." For $0.99 and up, you can download toys and figurines (they had an entire wall on display) and print as many as you like. I asked a rep if the files had DRM, and she confirmed that it was set up "like downloading music." It's an apt analogy; for better or worse, MakerBot is definitely the Apple of the industry.

    Mcor Technologies

    So far, all the printers we've seen print in plastic, but Mcor Technologies' prints in paper. The machine, which costs a whopping $48,000 (the material costs are low, a rep noted), layers precut and pre-printed paper into 3D color objects.

    3D photos and things like that were pretty cool—although they were a bit rougher than you might expect—but this is definitely aimed at the commercial market.

    Full Spectrum

    Next door was Full Spectrum, which was showcasing the Pegasus Touch laser SLA printer it funded on Kickstarter. Full Spectrum's Andrew Boggeri told me that their laser 3D printers, which harden resin layer by layer using UV diodes from a Blu-ray player, work 10 times faster than a comparable plastic printer (a claim I didn't stick around to time, as no 3D printer is really all that fast). 

    The company also built its own modelling software, which appeared pretty advanced for a small outfit. Boggeri showed me how it automatically adds in the supports required for printing (which are removed after an object is completed), which is a pretty cool feature for the DIY set. He also said that because Blu-ray diodes are so cheap, the company is selling the Pegasus for less than $2,000.

    Tiertime

    Tiertime's UP Plus 2 model received a lot of attention from passing crowds, and I assume it's because the open design is so cool to look at. The notable feature for this model, which can print in a 6x6x6 inch space, is that it auto-calibrates itself, which means you can print objects over and over without things getting wonky. Otherwise, it seems a pretty straightforward device, and I thought its open, simple frame was aimed at lowering the price. However, it's listed on Amazon for a cool $1,600.

    da Vinci

    Firmly at the cheap end of the market is XYX printing's da Vinci 1.0, which retails for a paltry $499. It's a pretty simple device: no LCD screens, its resolution is comparatively low to other models, and it only prints in ABS. It hails from an older generation, but for the price, it could be an easy path into the 3D printing world. That on its own is notable.

    So what does this all mean for the state of 3D printing in 2014? Well, I think the main takeaway is that the basic 3D printer market has matured well, and we're seeing a wide variety of systems printing a variety of plastics. However, MakerBot's emphasis on figurines highlights one problem still facing the industry: When do 3D printers become so useful that people simply can't say no to buying one?

    Right now, owning a 3D printer would mean being able to produce all kinds of useful and whimsical things, but is the sum of that convenience worth a couple grand to you? Clearly, a lot of people are interested, but I think the next phase of adoption is going to be powered by the next breakthrough in materials. Dropping $2,000 on a printer right now is a choice that's partly fueled by novelty, but if and when printers can deliver products made with a wide variety of materials and colors—imagine printing an actual hammer, with plastic handle, rubber grip, and metal head—the distributed manufacturing revolution will really be upon us. The good news is that, according to the folks in the industry, that future's getting pretty close.

    @derektmead

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