Beam Me Up, Scotty, I Have Captured The 3D Printer

Would you believe that a new technology is bringing us closer to the “replicator” featured on Star Trek? When our brave crewmembers pressed a few buttons on their control panel, this nifty device “created” products like food and water.

Additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3D printing, is a high-growth, emerging market that’s creating lots of buzz among industry, creative, and do-it-yourself enthusiasts. Analysts estimate that the worldwide market will grow from $1 billion in today’s sales to $5 billion over the next five years.

lightweight and flexible clothing made from 3d digital printing

How is this for lightweight, flexible clothing made from 3D printing?

It’s a market crowded with different approaches to problem solving, a wide range of printer models and prices, and growing investment by venture capitalists, education, and government. Social media has enabled its backers to have a unique online presence, with blogs, communities, and marketplaces where users can share ideas and sell products.

Last month, I visited the “Inside 3D Printing Conference” at the Javits Center in New York, and saw 3D printing in action. Think of sculpture as an image for traditional manufacturing, which uses “subtractive” methods like drilling or cutting away to create or release an object from a block of raw material.

In contrast, additive manufacturing is just that—it builds an object, in three dimensions, by laying down micro-thin sheets of material, usually a liquid resin or plastic material, just as ink does in your desktop printer. Design software tells the printhead how and where to deliver the material—which I had trouble seeing in the individual layer because it is so thin. The object is built up slowly as the layers combine.

Eventually, you have created an object: unique, painstaking, and often possessing high design and great beauty. True desktop or portable units, at price points as low as $1,299, can create objects in a 5-inch cubic space. Commercial models can generate larger-scale design prototypes for aerospace and automotive applications, cutting time and cost for successful product development.

Where is 3D printing used today? The key drivers are customer needs for fast-response, highly customized, one-off production.

For industry, 3D printing can enhance design prototypes and modeling for automotive, aerospace, architecture, and other commercial applications from packaging to shoe design. Consider the power of crafting prosthetics, hip implants, or dental crowns based on an individual patient’s body scans.

Try google-ing “wall street journal” and “3d printing,” and you will see results indicating its use in surgery and its application to fashion design.

The acceptance of 3D printing among consumers has supported the growth of passionate online communities. One company in Brooklyn has launched a marketplace where 10,000 individual “shops” present design concepts. When you see an item you like, you can customize and order it. The company has the 3D printing production facility to create and ship the item, sharing the revenue with the shop owner. You can buy jewelry, smart phone cases, fantasy figures, gaming accessories, espresso cups, and flower vases.

So, are we ready for a world where a replicator can replace all our kitchen appliances and spit out our Tuesday morning work outfit? Not yet, but this fascinating technology is moving us in that direction. Keep your eyes open—you may see an example of 3D printing walking down the catwalk, in ruffled white mesh.

Terry Anstine, today’s guest contributor, is one of those leaders who see high-growth segments of the market and chase after them. She advises, “Attend trade shows and educational events, engage people in conversation — it’s a lot more fun than you might think!”

Photo originally published in de zeen magazine.

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  • Bob

    Great summary of this intriguing technology and its potential impact on a variety of industries. I’ve heard that other materials can be used beyond plastics… designer food anyone???

    • Terry Anstine

      Thanks, Bob.

      There is, in fact, research work being done on food applications. Here’s an article from Tech News Daily at that outlines some possible directions, including a new NASA project for space food!

  • Erik

    This sounds really exciting! I’d love to hear more updates on this new ‘additive manufacturing.’ Are these companies mostly start-ups, or more established printing technology companies? Are print resin stores going to start popping up, in case you go to print a steak, but you’re out of beef resin? Cool stuff.

    • Terry Anstine

      Hi, Erik, the industry is very diverse right now, with plenty of creative start-ups taking advantage of relatively low cost-of-entry.

      On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal featured MakerBot (see for more) as a larger player in the space. Just four years old, the company has 250 employees, a retail store in Manhattan and is opening a new Brooklyn production facility today!

  • Martha

    Really interesting!
    The first time I ever heard of 3D printing was on
    “The Big Bang Theory”. Howard got one for his lab at the university. He and Raj
    were using it to make action figures in their own likenesses.

    • Terry Anstine

      Hi, Martha, thank you.
      Isn’t it funny how we get our science education sometimes?
      I love BBT, too, and that was such a funny episode!

  • Yumie Heinkle


  • Jura Kendrik

    Useful writing – Just to add my thoughts , if anyone needs a CA Community Event Temporary Food Facility Application , my wife encountered a blank form here

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