Even as 3-D printing’s impact on science, healthcare and consumer electronics grows, these devices aren’t likely to find their way into your home anytime soon. In fact, the closest most people will get to a 3-D printer in the near future will be ordering custom-made products from retailers that build objects the way Kinko’s and other copy centers created on-demand paper products years ago.
HP’s long-anticipated entrance into the 3-D printing market reinforces this observation. The company on October 29 introduced its new Multi Jet Fusion printer, a system designed primarily for companies that print designs submitted by customers via the Web or mobile apps as well as engineers and inventors looking to make rapid prototypes. Multi Jet Fusion will debut in 2016, after HP spends the next year beta testing the product.
The company was curiously quiet about the possibility of making desktop printers that might compete with MakerBot’s lineup of consumer devices or, for example, XYZprinting’s $800 da Vinci 1.0 combination 3-D scanner and printer.
HP’s Multi Jet Fusion is roughly the size and shape of a refrigerator lying on its side. Multi Jet builds objects using powdered polymers although the company is hoping to enable the system to print in ceramic and other materials in the future. The system can print either computer-aided designs or 3-D scanned images at least 10 times faster than competing printers that use more conventional printing methods, the company claims.
Such methods include selective laser sintering, which uses a high-power laser to fuse small particles together, and fused deposition modeling, which sets down thin layers of melted plastic filament or metal wire through one or more extrusion nozzles. Part of this increase in speed comes from HP’s use of two printer arms that alternately sweep over the build area, applying fusing and detailing chemical agents to the polymer as each layer is built. Other methods separate these different processes or use a single extrusion nozzle to deposit materials in the build area, making them less efficient than the system HP introduced.
The new printer—combined with offerings from more established 3-D printer makers such as Stratasys (which purchased MakerBot in 2013)—provides more options for online 3-D printing marketplaces such as Shapeways and Sculpteo that help people design, build and sell without needing a printer of their own. One of Sculpteo’s more prominent customers is the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), part of the European Space Agency (ESA), which used the printing service to make a model of the comet that the ESA’s Rosetta mission has been tracking. Scientists used that model to help them determine where to land Rosetta’s robotic lander, Philae, on November 12.
Other small manufacturers use 3-D printers to design, make and sell their own products to consumers. For example, Normal, which makes custom-fit audio ear buds, asks customers to snap and send photos of their ears, which it then uses to determine the dimensions of the ear buds it prints at its studio in New York City. Meanwhile, Artec Group and Threeding.com announced last week their plans to use 3-D scanners and printers to reproduce and sell sculptures, weapons, tools and other historical artifacts from Central and Eastern European museums. The companies are already doing this for more than 150 items on display at two museums in Bulgaria, where Threeding is based.
Customization will likewise help 3-D printing improve the manufacture of medical devices. Yale University announced last week it is teaming up with manufacturer Oxford Performance Materials Inc. to develop designs for 3-D printed biomedical components such as skull implants and prostheses for rib replacement. The prospect of printing a tailor-made prosthetic or therapeutic device could have “life-changing” impact on a patient, according to Pete Basiliere, a research vice president with business-consulting firm Gartner. Basiliere, speaking Thursday at an event in New York City hosted by Stratasys, noted that even a device as ubiquitous as the hearing aid could benefit from greater customization—along the lines of Normal’s ear buds—to make more comfortable to wear.