ces live logo

What CES 2013 tells us about the future of 3D printing

Posted on January 14th, 2013 · Posted in Print News
Last week over 150,000 exhibitors, journalists, celebrities, tech vendors and industry bigwigs converged upon the Las Vegas Convention Center in Nevada for one of the major dates in every tech-geek’s calendar. The International Consumer Electronics Show has, since 1967, been a common place for major hardware to get its official unveiling. As one would expect, given the current cyclone of hype surrounding it, 3D printing’s presence was very much felt on the exhibition floor, with three companies in particular grabbing attention.

Makerbot

After taking home the award for Best in Show for Emerging Tech at last year’s shindig for the Replicator 2 printer, Makerbot returned with an update: The Replicator 2X. Whereas the Replicator 2 was made as accessible as possible to introduce casual hobbyists to the technology, this year’s model is a much more sophisticated beast. Capable of handling stronger ABS plastic and fitted with a heat capturing hood to prevent objects cracking and curling during the cooling process, the Replicator 2X is aimed at the user looking to innovate, not just experiment.

Perhaps most important of all, Makerbot’s latest pride and joy comes fitted with two plastic extruders, meaning, unlike its predecessor, it can handle printing in two separate colours. It should be on the shelves by mid-March in the States, at a cost of $2,799.

That was not the only thing Makerbot had to show us in Vegas this week, however. Also unveiled was the Thingiverse platform, an open forum for users to show off creations and share and find new designs. Rather than simply print off previously designed objects, this allows users to customise items before sending them through the printer.

3D Systems

As exciting as Makerbot’s new announcements were, they were not enough to stop it surrendering last year’s crown to its most ferocious rival. The CubeX printer from 3D Systems took home the 2013 Best in Show award for Emerging Tech and now stands as the desktop 3D printer to beat over the coming year. Most notably, it can create objects the size of a basketball in three colours using two different plastics (ABS and PLA) simultaneously.

Though that was enough to convince the judges, the price tag of the CubeX may have buyers chalking it number two on their list behind Makerbot’s cheaper model. The three colour CubeX will retail from $3,999, while the two colour version will be available for $3,249. Also, its layer height (without options) of 125 microns means its resolution is less crisp than the Replicator’s ultra-fine 100 microns.

Form Labs

The passionate, Kickstarter-boosted 3D maverick Form Labs was also exhibiting in Vegas, touting its impressive Form 1 machine. Unlike other popular models, the Form 1 uses stereolithography instead of fuse deposition to render objects with a much higher resolution. Before you rush to Wikipedia, stereolithography is a photopolymer-based process that uses lasers and liquid resin to deliver smoother, cleaner prints. It’s available to pre-order at $3,299 from Form Labs’ website.

So...what does that all tell us?

It tells us, first of all, that the above mentioned manufacturers are racing to get their machines into the mainstream and onto people’s desktops. That happening between now and the next CES, however, is looking unlikely. High prices and steep operational learning curves for all the above models put them out of the hands of the casual electronics consumer. Until it becomes more than just the reserve of tech whizzes and designers, the great, promised revolution of 3D printing will not happen.

A good indication of this could be found at Stratasys’ display in the Convention Center last week. One of two publically traded 3D print companies (alongside 3D Systems), Stratasys still shows little interest in consumer level machinery. Instead it brought The Mojo to CES. A commanding, powerful machine, with a commanding, powerful price tag of $9,900, it is clearly aimed at the high end of the commercial market.

That is not to say, however, that the public’s interest will not remain high over the next twelve months. Certainly the internet is yet to grow tired of whacky headlines linking 3D printing to marching bio-bots and plastic dildos. It is a better question to ask how interested investors will stay in the same period.

The first week or so of 2013 has already seen a 4% rise in 3D Systems’ stock price and, on his CNN Money blog, stock expert Paul Molina predicts that will rise further in the aftermath of this year’s CES. He also predicts the field for manufacturers will get awfully crowded, awfully quickly and, on the evidence of last week, that is hard to debate. What it will do to the already bloated stock prices may lead to a pretty brutal fall-out amongst the companies jockeying for position on a crowded track.

What all of this adds up to is a vision of 3D printing, as both an industry and technology, growing healthily but perhaps not quite as supernaturally fast as many have prognosticated. The consensus remains: 3D printing is the future but it isn’t the present just yet.