People who have 3D printers at home today are definitely "early adopters." Most current at-home 3D printers are fussy things, some with exposed wiring and circuitry. And on top of all that, most at-home printers use plastic, so they're only good for making toys, knick-knacks or crude replacement parts for that one busted knob on the dishwasher.
No slight against spare parts and toys, but for home 3D printers to really hit the mainstream, they'll probably need to produce more items that most people want. Luckily, the next generation of 3D printers is on its way. A home, "Star-Trek"-style replicator isn't in the immediate future, but desktop 3D printers are getting more capable by the day. Soon you could be printing in metal, ceramic, chocolate and even Play-Doh.
Multi-color 3D prints
You can already (if you own a model costing upwards of $2,700) print a single item in multiple colors. That leads to more-finished products: imagine dice that don't need their spots painted on or measuring spoons with the quantities printed in a different color along the handle. And relatively soon, the ProDesk3D will advance 3D printing further by printing in full color, even (its creators say) mixing colors of filament to create new colors.
3D prints in exotic materials
Companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo allow designers to upload files to the cloud and get them printed on industrial machines in a variety of materials more interesting than plastic: mock sandstone, ceramics and metals (or precious metal clay, a clay filled with gold or silver dust that can be sculpted into jewelry) are all available. Soon the owner of a home 3D printer might be able to use all these materials and more.
An Alpharetta, Ga.-based company called Hyrel 3D is just shipping its first 3D printers that have "hot-swappable" nozzles. This means that a user could print a prototype in plastic, then switch to printing the real thing in clay, Plasticine or even wax.
Founder Karl Gifford told Tom's Guide that the sky's the limit with his product. "[You could print in] grease. I've done peanut butter," he said. "I've done mayonnaise … We cleaned up the mess."
Messes aside, Hyrel is about to start selling a food- and dishwasher-safe nozzle that can be used to print melted chocolate. "It has Teflon parts," Gifford said.
There are a number of reasons why you'd want to print an object in more than one material (chocolates filled with caramel! circuit boards with conductive plastic embedded in them). But one of the most compelling reasons for the at-home user may be the ability to print supports in a different material.
Imagine a 3D print of, for example, a mushroom. To keep the mushroom's cap from flopping, it has to be supported by something solid until the print material hardens or dries. When using PLA plastic, some tinkerers use another plastic called PVA to create their supports. PVA has a lower melting point than PLA, so the supports melt away in a hot water bath.
Now, let's say you want to print that mushroom in clay. "What would I use to support clay?" asked Gifford. "If I use wax, once the clay dries, you can heat it up and the wax just flows right off it. And it's reusable."
Laser sintering changes it all
The current discussions around 3D-printer improvements may soon seem terribly outdated, like a debate on the relative merits of different brands of wax cylinder for recording sound. In February 2014, a set of patents covering 3D printing via selective laser sintering (SLS) is expected to expire, opening the market to an entirely new way of printing.
Most of the 3D printers now available to the at-home tinkerer use the familiar method of fused deposition modeling (FDM), in which a nozzle extrudes layer upon layer of melted material.
SLS, on the other hand, uses a laser to melt particles of powder together. It's faster, cheaper and often creates more finished-looking parts, since SLS doesn't require supports. And, unlike with FDM, SLS-printed objects typically don't require sanding or other finishing processes. SLS printers can work in many materials, like nylon, metals and molded polystyrene (the plastic found in CD jewel cases).
When the SLS patents expire, experts predict an explosion of cheap SLS printers for the home market.
Michael Weinberg, vice president of PK Thinks, a D.C.-based think tank focusing on intellectual property law, technology policy and emerging tech, called the expiring patents "a really exciting development." Further, he said, "It is hard to tell what the impact of those patents [expiring] will be, but it is reasonable to expect that someone, and probably a collection of someones, will find a way to bring low-cost SLS printers to the market."
That said, there are 20 years of follow-up patents related to SLS that will not be expiring in 2014, so Weinberg urged 3D-printing enthusiasts to temper their expectations. You probably won't have a $100 SLS printer on your desktop next Christmas. "I don't think anyone thinks that just because a handful of key patents expire, all of a sudden anyone will be able to build anything."
Yet for Gifford, 3D printing is really just getting started. "I was in electronics in 1970, and I know what that has looked like, and I am seeing this as being a similar road to development," he said, referencing the ways personal computing has completely changed over the past four decades. What you do [with 3D printing] 20 years out will boggle the mind."