Trends 2008: Will 3D printing finally go mainstream?

Everyone wants to be a designer. That's the value proposition of, a new online service claiming it will allow consumers to design their own personalized and customized 3D content.

Everyone wants to be a designer. That's the value proposition of, a new online service claiming it will allow consumers to design their own personalized and customized 3D content. 3D printing, as the underlying technology is called, is a form of rapid prototyping that builds up three-dimensional objects by "printing" successive layers of materials (polymer, cells, sugar, etc.) on top of each other.

George Hart

As a recent Wired story points out, 3D-printing technology has been around for a while, mostly used by professional design firms and design-intensive businesses such as automakers, handset makers, and aerospace companies. Recent advancements have enabled the technology to "print out" fully functional finished products, leading to a remarkable boom in equipment sales: according to market research firm Wohlers Associates, 8,000 machines, or 36 percent of the industry's two-decade worldwide sales total of 22,000, have been sold in the past two years alone.

Multi-material 3D printers, capable of producing 3D parts and assemblies made from different materials in a single build, are hitting the market, and companies like Freedom of Creation (FOC) are paving the way for making rapid manufacturing technologies accessible for consumers.

In addition, a steady drop in the price of printers has spawned many new businesses trying to push 3D printing into the consumer market: 3D Outlook Corporation is selling 3D models of mountains and other topographic 3D maps for prices below $100, catering to hikers, resorts, and real estate firms.

Companies such as Fabjectory and FigurePrints produce 3D models of virtual characters (from virtual worlds or games). SolidWorks, a U.S. unit of Dassault Systemes SA, a French maker of design software, has launched Cosmic Modelz, a site that lets kids use 3D printing technology to create their own customized action-figures. And now JuJups wants to step aggressively into the emerging market with a Web-based 3D-printing service for everyone.

The JuJups site, however, currently only offers customized designs of photo frames, which it then prints out on 3D color printing machines and ships to customers. Although the company says it plans to expand its printing capacity to support the growing demand for customized objects including giftware, memorabilia, toys, etc., it is a little odd that it put out a bold announcement (for immediate release) of an offering that is apparently not quite ready for prime time at this point.

The JuJups example shows that there's still a gap between hype and reality when it comes to 3D printing for consumers. Trendwatching, and other trend-spotting media (Times Online, Post-Gazette, Make) have long propagated "MIY" (make it yourself) culture as a key trend.

Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, says 3D printing is the fastest-growing part of the rapid prototyping industry. Wired believes it is witnessing a design revolution. Earlier this year, Glen Emerson Morris, a technology consultant, predicted in the Advertising and Marketing Review that 3D printing (or desktop manufacturing, as he calls it) would hit the consumer market big time: "It will likely have an impact on society, politics, and business as great or greater than the Internet. So, fasten your seatbelts. This is going to be a really wild ride."

Morris argued that "one of the reasons consumer use of home 3D printing, better described as desktop manufacturing, is likely to take off quickly is that there is very little manufacturing being done in America anymore. As a result, there will be very little pressure by manufacturing special interests against it."

And yet, we're still sitting here with our seatbelts fastened--but the wild ride has yet to occur. Aside from the above-mentioned niche sites, the big mainstream push from Generation C (C = content) to Generation 3D has been lost somewhere along the way. When will big retailers start to add 3D printing features to their sites? Where are the powerful brands or smart start-ups embracing the model? When will see the YouTube of 3D printing?

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