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While 3D printing is evolving and maturing at a rapid rate, it's mainly businesses that are utilizing the breakthroughs, with consumer 3D printing at least five years away, according to research firm Gartner. The short term outlook indicates business and medical practices, interested in embracing 3D for functional purposes, will benefit from using 3D technology.
Trying to embrace 3D printing is still a relatively expensive endeavor at the moment, and end users might be interested in following the market - but aren't in a big hurry to invest in 3D printers and filaments to make their own 3D-printed creations. Over the next two to five years, there will be an increase in enterprise 3D printing, as 3D print creation software, scanners and printing services rise in the near future.
"Consumer 3D printing is around five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption," said Pete Basiliere, Gartner Research VP, in a statement. "Today, approximately 40 manufacturers sell the 3D printers most commonly used in businesses, and over 200 startups worldwide are developing and selling consumer-oriented 3D printers, priced from just a few hundred dollars. However, even this price is too high for mainstream consumers at this time, despite broad awareness of the technology and considerable media interest."
After successfully hosting its first Maker Faire, discussing 3D printing with its "Print the Fleet" workshops, the U.S. Navy is interested in learning how 3D printing technology can help. Specifically, the Navy hopes to see 3D printing help improve readiness, allow for faster manufacturing, and reduce storage and shipping costs.
The USS Essex currently has a compact 3D printer which is being used for testing, including sailors printing parts required for daily functions. Furthermore, an increasing number of Navy labs are testing 3D printing - but it's going to be curious to see how sailors onboard ships utilize the technology.
"When you consider the cost and vulnerabilities of our existing Navy logistics and supply chains as well as the resource constraints we face, it quickly becomes clear that we have to reimagine how we do business," said Vice Adm. Phil Cullom, naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics deputy chief. "When advanced manufacturing and 3D printing becomes widely available, we envision a global network of advanced fabrication shops supported by sailors with the skills and training to identify problems and make products."
The Smithsonian Institution successfully created a 3D portrait of President Barack Obama's head, and he has become the first sitting president to have a 3D-printed bust made. The scanning process only took a few minutes, with the president asking the team questions along the way.
The 3D printing took more than 40 hours to print, with more than 5,000 layers of durable plastic that was melted with a laser.
"[First], we 3D-scanned the face, ear to ear, at extremely high resolution, capturing details down to the pore level of the skin,", according to Smithsonian 3D program officers. "We worked with a team from the University of Southern California, who use this technology to 3D scan Hollywood actors. And then the Smithsonian 3D team used hand-held structured light scanners to scan the rest of the bust - the sides of the face, under the chin, the back of the head. We put these two data sets together in order to create the model we used for the 3D print."
Researchers will use 3D mapping technology to give divers and archaeologists a better map on how to study the Hoyo Negro underwater cave. The cave was first found seven years ago, but only a small number of cave divers are trained properly to enter Hoyo Negro.
Photos are being combined to create a 3D image of the cave, which has at least one human skeleton, along with saber-toothed cats, ground sloths, and other prehistoric animals. The researchers will analyze features in photos captured by divers, and will create a 3D structure-from-motion complete image.
"If we can document all the artifacts, make a phone map of the bottom of the pit and create a 3D visualization that puts the archaeologists and paleontologists there - without ever getting wet - those discovers and interpretations are made possible," said Dominique Rissolo, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) scholar, in a statement.
Pixar Animation Studios will make its RenderMan 3D rendering software available for non-commercial use free for graphic animators. The Pixar-developed software was used for such films as Harry Potter, Toy Story and Monsters Inc - and while Pixar produces its own films - RenderMan is licensed to other studios.
The non-commercial version of the software will be available to students, researchers, developers, institutions and for personal use, without any functional limitations, watermarking, or time restrictions during production.
"This truly brings the future of fully photo-realistic ray-traced rendering to RenderMan," said David Hirst, MPC Global Head of Lighting. "We did tests with the production assets from one of our latest movies and were completely blown away by the speed and how interactively we could preview and render these assets. The RIS based integrator is going to change the way we work, with more scalable rendering and faster results."
Medical researchers hope to use 3D printing technologies to create human hearts which can be realistically used for transplants and other life-saving situations. Being able to use a 3D-printed heart in a human test subject is still years away, but researchers are keen to push the boundaries and see if it's possible.
University of Louisville researchers have created heart valves and small veins, and have found success with tiny blood vessels that are being tested in lab mice. Researchers believe they will be able to create an entire human heart within five years, and the "bioficial heart" could be a major medical breakthrough.
"With complex organs such as the kidney and heart, a major challenge is being able to provide the structure with enough oxygen to survive until it can integrate with the body," noted Dr. Anthony Atala, as his team at Wake Forest University hopes to use 3D printing to create viable human kidneys.
The 3D printer market topped $2.5 billion worldwide in 2013, and analysts believe that number will balloon drastically, reaching $16.2 billion by 2018, according to research from Canalys. 3D printing technology became more prominent over the past year or two, but the printers and materials are still relatively expensive.
Early adopters praised 3D printing, but critics mentioned high cost and impractical functionality as reasons not to support the technology. However, 3D printing is still in its infancy and will mature quickly as the industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace:
"This is a market with enormous growth potential now that the main barriers to uptake are being addressed," said Tim Shepherd, Canalys senior analyst, in an interview with SiliconValley.com. "As it matures, there is clear and substantial potential across numerous sectors, such as engineering and architecture, aerospace and defense, and medical (particularly in the fabrication of custom prosthetics), for 3D printing to have a dramatic impact within five years."
During South by Southwest this year, 3D printing is on full display, with industry supporters handing out 3D-printed food to event attendees. Major tradeshows and conventions, such as CES 2014 and SXSW are helping display 3D technology on a big platform, introducing a new audience to potential for the food industry.
3D printed food should give the 3D printing industry a strong boost in 2014, with a larger number of casual consumers being exposed to the technology. Chocolate maker Hershey's is expected to support 3D printing for the next few years, creating edible chocolate sweets for visitors at its factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
3D Systems, which partnered with Hershey's and other select companies, has the ChefJet food printer - though with a price tag still around $5,000, only a small number of bakeries and food makers will be able to afford the niche technology. During SXSW, the ChefJet is using sugar, water and alcohol to print delicious candies that taste sugary and sweet.
The cost of 3D printing still hasn't decreased enough to significantly drive consumer adoption, but a growing number of businesses should start thinking about the technology. It's not just small bits of food or novelty items - there is great potential to 3D print human tissue, car parts, fighter jet materials, furniture, and other similar intricate products.
Decision makers need to decide if 3D printing will help produce, sell, or otherwise benefit the company - and consider the costs and technological issues relating to move from traditional printing to 3D printing.
"Over the last six months, my colleague Michael Yamnitsky and I have been research the 3D printing ecosystem, working to understand the impact on business and technology systems," said Sophia Vargas, Forrester analyst, in a blog post. "We anticipate that 3D printing will expand the reach of digital disruption, paving the way for new products, processes, and delivery models."
Technology to bring 3D printing closer to the mass market is accelerating, though most 3D printed items tend to be rather small in size. To help demonstrate the effectiveness of printing larger items, BigRep, a company founded in 2014, opens the door to printing items such as furniture. The device is launching worldwide at large trade shows, and begins shipping in two months, with a $39,000 MSRP.
The BigRep One can print full-scale objects in sizes up to 45x39x47 inches, and has the ability to print plastics, nylons, Laywood (wood fibers mixed with polymers), and Laybrick (something similar to sandstone-type of material).
"We know that the need for 3D prints has increased enormously in the creative industries among architects, artists and inventors, among others," said Lukas Oehmigen, BigRep founder, in a press statement. "We have developed printing technology that lowers costs by about 90%, opening the door to a new dimension. Clients may now affordably produce life-size, three dimensional objects."