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3D printers ‘print’ objects in three-dimensions by melting melting a materials like plastic and then depositing them layer-by-layer, ultimately creating a three dimensional object. Plastic is commonly used, but other materials like metal, polymer powders, or chocolate can also be used. Homes of the future may have 3D printers to print out clothes and furniture. NASA plans to build a 3D printer that can be sent to space and available to ‘print’ most anything needed, like spacecraft pipes and parts, and even food.
3D printing was a $1.8 billion business in 2008 and has increased to $2.2 billion in 2012. By 2021, the US market is expected to grow to$10.8 billion. In the second quarter of 2013, sales from 3D printer companies like 3D Systems, Statasys and ExOne have doubled and revenues have jumped 45 percent. McKinsey Global Institute calls 3D printing a ‘Disruptive technology‘ and expects 3D-printer related sales to be between $230 and $550 billion by 2025.
Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, told the LA Times that “the billion-dollar question is, how big will this become and when? You see companies already making fashion garments and jewelry through printing. And we have seen demonstrations of 3-D printing food and living tissue.”
Surprisingly, healthcare has been one area that has been greatly impacted by 3D printing. The printing of organs and human body parts, like ears, is now being testing in the laboratory. In March, 2013, a man had an implant which replaced three-quarters of his skull, an implant that was built with a 3D printer. Implants can be created that are custom-shaped to the patient’s anatomy.
Cardiologists have created heart tissue implants with 3D printing. Laura Olivieri, Pediatric cardiologist, said that “It’s a brand new field. These have only been possible for a very little amount of time and I don’t think we even know the full capability of what we’re going to be… what they’re going to be used for. We’re kind of talking about a technology that went going from feasible to kind of usable and we’re right in that middle ground right now.”
While some have been disappointed that 3D printing technology hasn’t taken off sooner — 3D printing has been available commercially for at least six years — the industry is poised for growth in the upcoming years. The high costs for printers are beginning to come down, enabling the technology to be more widely adopted. Even more rapid price markdowns may happen in 2014.
Duann Scott, Design Evangelist at 3D printing company Shapeways, said that several key 3D printing patents covering a technique called ‘laser sintering‘ will expire in February of 2014. Sintering technology is key in making high-quality 3D printings. Once those patents expire, Scott predicts a huge drop in printer prices.