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The Next Big Thing
Will 3D printing really become a household trend?What's the real role for 3D printers in the future? CNET's Brian Cooley explains the trend, the benefits, and where the growth is likely to take place in the market.
-Finally, 3D printing. A few candidates for Next Big Thing status seem quite as much like magic or quite as unlikely as this one depending on your point of view. Here's a small example of how automakers move at a pace more like electronics using technologies like this 3D printer to rapid prototype ideas today, not next week. Let me show you something. Now, that 3D printer that we have here in the ERL made this hole. This machine was made ready to go. This wasn't assembled later. Same goes for this chain. It came out this way. That's amazing. -3D printing isn't just for the super geeks and people making components for cars. You can use it to make everyday objects like an iPhone case. -This head deposits this plastic material down here to this print surface. It prints up layer by layer until you get a solid object at the end of it. So, once you have the plan and load it on the software, it tells the printer to print out plastic in a series of layers, building gradually up until you get a finished solid object. This exterior head moves here along the X axis as well as the Z axis and then this build plate moves up and down for the Y axis. So, it's created by the Replicator in particular and it can print two different colors. Now, it can either do that at the same time, making one object compressed in two different colors or can print, say, one object in white, one object in black, or you can do those at the same time depending on the file and the layout and the very software settings you have. -We knew that 3D printers had arrived two years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show when suddenly the printers were all at or below $2,000, some quite a bit below. And the makers of them were abandoning this idea that we were all gonna go out and learn CAD software, instead envisioning a sharing and buying market of pre-done designed files. Bottom-line is we are more a nation of buyers than makers. That's not a condemnation. It's just reality. After a busy day, week, or month of commuting, working, parenting, shopping, and dealing with all your connected life, a few us have the time or the inclination to come home and design the perfect soup ladle, let alone produce the thing. Great design is a talent anyway. It's more than just a piece of hardware and software. I watch instead for 3D printing to grow big in four areas above the average consumer but well below the large corporations who basically have already discovered and embraced it. First, prototyping. This is where products can leave the realm of a paper presentation, a PowerPoint, a verbal discussion, and move to being tangible. That's a big jump that seems trivial, but it's not. Early prototypes can make the difference between dying on the designed page and making it into early production. Second is low-volume products that are almost personal in their lower volume. Imagine something as simple as a smartphone case that is printed out that fits the contours of your hand on up to a crown ready at the dentist on the same date, not a week later, to a prosthetic that is perhaps created during a medical procedure for a perfect fit for the patient from the very beginning. Third, simple software. I mean, so simple that it's almost like expression more than technology operation. -Look at Autodesk 123D Catch, object capture software for example. -Or see what the folks behind the Meta Smart glasses were envisioning where you would just use augmented reality to shape your envisioned product in space and then hand that design to the printer. Fourth, more materials. Moving from today's mono-color plastics to multicolor plastics, metals, and even biological materials from the DNA level all the way to printing synthetic meat.