With 3D Printing, the Future Is Now

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Although it has been around for nearly 30 years, 3D printing is just now coming into its own. This past week the industry was represented in New York City at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo. 3D designers and enthusiasts at the conference were able to find everything from a hobbyist’s printer for under $500 to a massive commercial machine with a price tag of well over half a million dollars. And the possibilities in this space appear to be infinite.

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An animated sequence of MakerBot's Replicator 2 printing a model. (Photo by: Siemond Chan)

See photos from the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo >

In a presentation at the conference, Scott McGowan, VP of marketing at Solid Concepts Inc., outlined several uses for 3D printing that the casual consumer may not have known existed. For just a few examples, Solid Concepts has created prototypes that will decrease the noise from airplane engines; printed a model that helped the crew of the international space station test a way to refuel satellites in mid-orbit; and fabricated fuel tanks for planes that can fit inside a wing or in other tight spaces.

Could 3D printing save your life?

Andy Christensen is the president of Medical Modeling Inc. The company's focus is on creating three-dimensional X-rays, which can then be used to make  replacement body parts, including, for one, a “physical replica of someone’s hip.” In addition to often working better for the patient, creating a personalized replacement saves a lot of time and money in the surgical process.

There’s a whole other side of medical 3D printing as well: printing internal organs. This arm of the industry takes cultured cells and aims to create human tissue for organs such as livers and lungs. The days of saving a patient with a failing liver using their own cells aren’t here just yet but Keith Murphy, CEO of bioprinting firm Organovo, says someday this may be commonplace.

In the meantime, his firm is working on producing cells to help drug companies test and develop new medications. For instance, Organovo can produce a one-millimeter-thick layer of liver cells and then test new drugs for liver failure before they are ever introduced to a living human. In addition, the company can produce diseases in cells that allow doctors to develop new drugs without having to find a patient afflicted with the disease. Murphy hopes the technology his firm is developing can eventually be put into the hands of some of the world's leading medical researchers.

3D printing and the consumer

While many of the companies gathered at this week's expo were geared more toward corporate, industrial or medical clients, there were still some eye-catching exhibits for the average Joe.
Most notable among these is Mcor. While other companies are perfecting the use of plastic and metal materials, the Mcor Iris printer uses the same printer paper you use at home or the office. With a price tag closing in on $50,000,the giant machine won’t be in too many American homes in the near future. But thanks to a deal with office supply giant Staples (SPLS), consumers will be able to see what it can do.

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Dr. Conor MacCormack, co-founder of Mcor Technologies. (Photo by: Siemond Chan)

 

Conor MacCormack is the co-founder and CEO of Mcor. He hopes that, within the next year, shoppers will be able to upload a 3D image and, for about $30, get a fully detailed 3D rendering ready for pick-up at their local Staples store. It’s this model that MacCormack thinks will lead 3D printing to the average consumer. “I think the bigger market is gonna be for people getting low-cost prints,” he says, as opposed to owning an actual 3D printer.

MacCormack admits using paper has its limits. While other companies are branching out and printing metals and polymers that can withstand heat and pressure to be used in cars and heavy machinery, Mcor is happy to take a different route. "The plastic [used in other 3Dprinters] per volume is more expensive than gold,” MacCormack notes. “So that prevents the ‘what if scenario,’ prevents the designers from printing four or five designs overnight.”
 
He adds that, right now, 3D printing won’t replace traditional manufacturing. Injection molding, for instance, can produce thousands of products a day; MacCormack says 3D printing just isn’t close to matching that output yet. The limits of the technology have therefore dictated the company’s focus.
 
3D scanning
 
A key barrier to entry for 3D printer users, says MacCormack, is the lack of consumers with the ability to make a 3D design using software. “We see the need for scanning technology,” he says. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get data onto the computer.”
 
So while his company focuses on printing, people such as Avi Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, are trying to make it easier to get the designs in the first place.
 
In his keynote address at the conference, Reichental stressed the need for easier scanning techniques and pointed to his company’s Fusion software, which turns millions of living room video game systems into 3D scanners.
 
The program works with Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox Kinect, a motion control add-on for the popular gaming system. Reichental envisions all sorts of opportunities with his software, including what he calls “brand interaction.” Imagine ordering an action figure in your own image from Mattel (MAT) or a Disney (DIS) princess that looks just like your daughter. These items may sound futuristic but the technology is here now.