7 Jan 2014

​3D Printing: What To Expect In 2014?

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The technology of printing in three dimensions is turning 30 this year. There still are a lot of discussions about the factors that could make 3D printing available in every home. However, it seems that year 2014 is going to be significant for this technology and its way towards mainstream consumer adoption as several key patents are going to expire this year and a number of innovations are about to enter the market.

3D Printing From Metal Is Coming Home

One of the common arguments against the forecast of “a 3D printer in every home” is that not many household items are made of plastic. This argument will be shattered in 2014 - when the first metal-based desktop 3D printers will hit the consumer market. The world’s first desktop 3D printers for metal - Mini Metal Maker and Newton 3D - were presented in the end of 2013 and are going to hit market in mid-2014. Michigan Technology University are building one of their own as well.

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A possibility to print metal, gold or silver at home might be a significant impulse for people to get a desktop printer for themselves. Another impulse might be a chance to print… food. Yes, it is predicted that 2014 might be the year when you could make ravioli with desktop 3D printer. Foodini is expected to be presented to the market in mid-2014.

Transforming Liquid Into Solid

Absolute majority of desktop 3D printers right now use the FDM (or FFF) approach - where hot plastic is extruded layer by layer to create a 3D printed item. However, in 2014 another technology could gain market share in the home market - desktop SLA (stereolitography) 3D printers.

Stereolitography, or SLA, printer uses laser to solidify a liquid resin. As a result, more intricate objects can be printed with higher quality and resolutions. So far, the most prominent SLA desktop 3D printer was Form1. Recently, however, several interesting projects of 3D printers have been launched on Kickstarter.

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One of them - Solidator is claimed to be faster and larger than other DLP based desktop 3D printers. Its build area is 3-4 times bigger than most of the commercial stereolithography printers. For example, it can print 6 Eiffel towers at 200 mm height. Despite those facts, it is exceptional in one more way - this 3D printer thickens an entire 0.1 mm layer at once, instead of the typical point by point approach - which increases its speed significantly.

Another 3D printer - Pegasus Touch - easily collected the necessary amount of money to develop the project. This 3D printer is using SLA technology and is simple to use, with an integrated touchscreen display. This printer is focused on speed. Its authors claim that it can control lasers properly while moving the laser beam at 3000 mm/s.

Bigger And Faster

FDM desktop 3D printers met year 2014 with expanded capabilities: they become bigger, faster and colorful. Speed and size will be essential features for a desktop 3D printer in 2014. Printing an espresso cup can take 45 minutes, the size of it was very limited and allowed to print only small objects.

The makers are already working on these questions. For example, MakerBot with a larger build area has been presented at CES in the beginning of the year. They have managed to 3D print a T-Rex head of 25.1 x 11.5 x 22.4 cm size.

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Another printer - Deltaprintr raised the funding on Kickstarter just a few days ago. It is special because it is adjustable and allows customers to vary the size of printing area.

3D print yourself the liver

Something that sounded surreal and godlike, may come true this year already. San Diego biotech firm Organovo promises that its technology will successfully print human liver by the end of 2014. It is expected that it will allow to 3D print a tissue - which could significantly help to reduce the price of drug development. According to Deloitte and Thomson Reuters, it currently takes 12 years and costs $1.3 billion dollars to develop a new drug, so likely savings will be substantial.

The liver tissue model is expected to be released is for research only. Nonetheless, it is still an extra-complex mission to bring this to reality. Organovo should have found a solution on how to keep tissue alive after it had been taken out of 3D printer. Organovo’s 3D printing process can build a liver tissue to a thickness of 500 microns.

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It was extremely difficult to find a way to supply nutrients into liver cells and to build a functional vascular system. They eventually succeeded to do that by laying down fibroblasts and endothelial cells along with the hepatocytes. It is expected that liver suitable and approved for a transplant would become available only in 3-10 years.

It seems that year 2014 is expected to be full of joyful astonishments for 3D printing consumers and challenges for the printer makers. Though, it is clear that if a major part of those predictions going to become a reality, it will have an essential impact for whole 3D printing market.