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3D printers: The future has already begun

Although it sounds utopian, it is in fact a reality: Objects like lamps, bracelets, and the glasses temples can now be “printed”– not in paper form, but as real 3D objects. How is that possible? The secret lies in a device no bigger than a beverage crate – the 3D printer.

The Replicator 2 by MakerBot will fit on any desk.

Until now, 3D printers have only been used in industry. But now they are conquering the mass market thanks to falling manufacturer prices. Bre Pettis is the founder of MakerBot, the market leader in the sector. “In a few years’ time every household will own a 3D printer,” enthuses the man who is regarded as the new Steve Jobs.

Today there are already tens of thousands of 3D printers owned by private individuals and engineers, in hobby rooms and research laboratories. And this could just be the beginning. The U.S. expert on the sector, Terry Wohlers, forecasts an annual growth rate of about 30 percent and estimates that sales of so-called additive manufacturing equipment will total around $3.7 billion in 2015.

Printers in kit form
In 3D printing, a material – usually plastic– is liquefied and laid down in wafer-thin layers one on top of the other. This process follows a digital blueprint that can be accessed online or designed personally. Anyone who can assemble the printer themselves can buy the kit for less than $600 dollars. A pre-assembled Replicator 2 from market leader MakerBot costs about $2,200 dollars.

High-resolution 3D printers can make model cars or functional gearboxes

Blueprints for 3D printers can be downloaded online
Right from its inception, the concept was a hit. Pettis has already sold more than 15,000 printers. The entire movement follows the Open Source principle, whereby everything is made publicly accessible. This makes it is easy to download instructions, designs, and blueprints for 3D printers on the Internet. Information can be exchanged and the latest developments presented at so-called Maker Fairs.

Not yet ready for the mass market
However, these printers are not perfected. For example, it can take a few hours for a simple object like a saucer to be completed. Also, finished products are only available in monochrome and are made from a relatively small amount of plastic. So when can we expect printed products that rival industrially manufactured goods? The research company Gartner expects that another five years or so will elapse before printed products will be able to match the quality of industrially manufactured goods.

The future belongs to e-manufacturing
The additive process is no longer a pioneering innovation in the industry. Experimentation with this production technique has been going on for 30 years. The advantages speak for themselves: Extreme flexibility and customization are no longer a problem. Nevertheless, this type of production takes longer than, say, conventional casting or stamping processes and it is also more expensive, especially for large batches.

Plaster is faster: The digital prototype is first generated at different levels of detail.

The technique has already achieved a breakthrough in the building of prototypes. Now 3D printing is conquering the production halls – following the trend from conventional engineering to e-manufacturing and CAD (computer-aided design). This makes more efficient structures possible and provides a means of processing materials that are not suitable for casting. The global market leader in the sector of e-manufacturing solutions for industrial applications is EOS GmbH based in Krailling, Germany, and it already counts MTU, EADS, Daimler, and BMW among its customers.