Tech trends 2015: 3D printing grows up
Twice as many 3D printers will be sold in 2015 as in 2014. 2016 will see twice as many again. Does this mean we’ll all have 3D printers in our study, workshop or kitchen, and be wearing 3D-printed clothes and headgear (above, from this year's 3D Printshow)? Probably not, but the customization made available by 3D printing will impact your life in a lot of interesting ways.
The massive growth in 3D printers that analyst firm Gartner predicts isn’t in the home. Post-hype it’s clear that there’s a place for 3D printers in the homes and studios of hobbyists and semi-professionals – as there is for other tools for artists, designers and developers from Arduinos and Raspberry Pis to lathes and easels. Sales here will likely be due to prices coming down and current owners upgrading to better models: with buyers being creative types and tinkerers not your average punter.
Where the growth is really going to happen is in commercial manufacturing – for example, HP’s first 3D printer, the Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer is aimed at design firms and will cost over £100,000 when it ships in 2016. This is an area where 3D printing – or additive manufacturing to give its formal, boring title – is so well established that as a concept it hasn’t been exciting for a few years now. Here it’s new developments such as affordable multi-material printing that are going to get product, furniture, fashion and technology designers exciting – and we’ll all reap the rewards of their efforts.
In January 2014, Stratasys launched the world’s first multi-material, full-color 3D printers, the snappily titled Objet500 Connex3 Color Mutli-material 3D Printer – which produced the shoe below – at a wince-inducing price of £200,000. Next year we expect to see much cheaper printers that can print multi-colored objects – though they’re unlikely the drop down low enough for most of us to afford.
Where this will affect us is that we’ll start to see more customized objects being sold at a reasonable price. Everything from clothes and shoes (above) to homewares and toothbrushes can be customized to our tastes – think of how you can customize almost any aspect of NIKEiD shoes and apply that to everything else in your life that you’d like to be yours. Multi-material printing – especially when one of those materials is electrically conductive – means that 3D printing can be applied to anything you can think of (from robots to glasses), and a few things you’d probably rather not think about (such as 3D-printed sex toys, which are apparently a thing).
One area where you hope you personally won’t see the benefits of 3D printing is in medicine. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen some truly wonderful prototypes: prosthetic eyes that cost £100 to make rather than £3,000 (and take a hour rather than weeks of hand-painting), precise casts for broken bones made of a mesh (below) that still lets you scratch and even 3D printed skin for burns victims.
In 2015, we expect at least some of these to become available through private medical companies and perhaps even the NHS. Driving this is because they offer better results than current techniques but – as with the prosthetic eyes – replacing the hand-made with the printed means that medical items that have to be customised for each user are significantly cheaper. And with budget pressures across the NHS, this is likely to be welcomed.
So the 3D printer won’t be the HD TV, tablet, laptop streaming box, dishwasher or microwave – ubiquitous devices that most of us have in our homes. But when we want something more customized than the mass-produced but less expensive than the hand-made, 3D printing will be there for us.