3D Printing continues to make major technology headlines with examples of seemingly anything being printed using this technology, from jewelry and dresses to guns and drugs. The shift in the creating power from large manufacturing companies to the everyday consumer is extremely evident and real.
But despite all the buzz, the real question is whether 3D printing is going mainstream?
This questions was at the center of this morning panel at the inaugural Engadget Expand consumer event made up of 3D printing experts: Avi Reichental, President and CEO, 3D Systems; Hod Lipson, Associate Professor of Engineering at Cornell University and the youngest on the panel, former Cornell University student now Co-Founder of FormLabs, Max Lobovsky.
The short answer to this question is not yet but everyone on the panel agreed that we are definitely at the start of the journey that will take us there. In the words of 3D System’s President Avi Reichental, the adoption of 3D printers are “inevitable” because the "train has already left the station." But Avi predicts it will take up to 10 years for this sector to move into maturity.
For Avi, it won’t take price, features or design to advance the consumer adoption of 3D printers. The key lies in one question “what will this printer do for me." The consumer value is what clearly needs to be defined for this sector to really take off.
Professor Lipson added that these printers also need to get to the point where we just turn them on and use them. The 3D printers that are currently available (and according to Avi there are around 62 different companies focusing on this) require you to know how it all works (usually a basic understanding of AutoCAD). Lipson likens the required evolutionary path of the 3D printer to the journey the PC has taken from the basics of DOS to Windows and iOS. Like the PC, these devices need to be plug-and-play and as simple to use as the laser printers we already have in our homes.
Lipson’s vision of 3D printing in the future is that there will be different scales of printers based on how they will be used. There will be printers in the cloud where consumers will go online to order things they won’t be able to print at home (such as brass knobs for doors); specialized printers that are used at work (like bio printers in hospitals) and printers that everyone has at their home to print everyday items like toys and eventually food.
Cornell University is already working in labs on printers focusing on food, biomaterials and batteries all from raw materials. He says that “digital cooking” with 3D printers that will eventually be able to use multi-materials is going to connect information technology and cooking in a way never before seen with technology today.
Lipson did address that growth in this sector is not without its risks and challenges. Discussions on intellectual rights and security are at the heart of issues the 3D printing industry will need to face as it continues to mature. And of course the societal implications stemming for the shift in consumer manufacturing will also need to be addressed especially as this technology has the potential for creating weapons and illegal substances.
But governance is not the only focus in this industry that is evolving rapidly. The panelists were already starting to talk about printing in new dimensions: 4D and 5D.
Two things were clear from this morning’s panel: 3D Printers are coming and our lives won’t be the same once they do.