Makerbot 3D Printer

Makerbot 3D Printer (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

2013 was the year that 3D printing positioned itself firmly in the minds of tech enthusiasts and early adopters as the next big thing.

2014 is already shaping up to be the year it breaks out into the mainstream media, revealing the real-world applications and inevitable disruptions that they’ll bring.

We pondered last year whether or not 3D printing is anything more than hype. Although the ‘maker movement’ still has a long way to go before everyone has a 3D printer in the home, the pace and wide range of uses, as demonstrated at CES 2014 last week, suggest that an irresistible momentum has been achieved.


Putting 3D Printing in Context

3D printing is an overnight success 30 years in the making. ~Avi Reichental, 3D Systems, Inc

The President and CEO of 3D Systems, Inc, Avi Reichental, worked hard at CES 2014 to put the development of 3D printing in perspective. In the context of the many decades that the technology has evolved, from the first basic additive process printing device in 1984 to the home editions that are now available (if not yet widely affordable), the media attention of the past few years shows how far the industry has come. Now, as it moves for mainstream adoption, the questions arise over which industries will be affected first.

Reichental went to great lengths to remind CES onlookers that there will be “far-reaching social impact and opportunities [from 3D printing],” adding that there is a substantial change in thinking required when we are “going from ideas to products in hours or days.” He stressed that the consumer element of the technology would live or die by ease of use, making a product that fits home needs naturally, breaking down the barriers between the complex underlying process and a simple user interface. In summary, he concluded, “we have to own easy.”

The most obvious initial application of 3D printers would be manufacturing, given the clear follow on from production lines and robotic assembly. But the experts also highlight immediate potential in healthcare and educational facilities. It will be interesting to see how the two tracks of professional use on an industrial level and personal use at home develop, especially if one pushes ahead of the other


The (Money) Makers

Whichever tracks develop more quickly for companies behind the maker movement, the money to power them is already being put on the table. Attracted by the projection of a $10.8 billion industry with 8 years, investors are starting to gravitate towards the early movers and shakers in the sector, including the aforementioned 3D Systems and high-profile competitors Makerbot.

With a physical product to sell and the widespread possibilities across all of the industries mentioned above (and many more), 3D printing is a technology trend that is building from a solid base rather than floating in a bubble. The biggest challenge for investors is likely to be not whether to pour their money into the industry, but where to pour it.

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