The words "3D printing" may bring up a wide range of images, from DIY-looking boxes churning out lumpy plastic figurines to miracle machines printing new organs to extend patients' lives. Rarely do people picture the middle ground: smaller, prettier printers for around the house, or real-life objects made a little better or cooler thanks to the technology.
But those changes are coming. This year sees the emergence of tiny 3D printers smaller than the proverbial breadbox, silent and stink-free 3D printers and — especially handy — printers with 24/7 tech support. These home printers, and far fancier ones in factories, are turning out toys, tools and clothes that weren't possible before, including scale models of users themselves made from 3D scans.
(Click on any of the images for a larger version.)
1. Mini Printers for Mini Prices
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While phones are getting bigger, 3D printers are often getting smaller — much smaller. M3D's Micro looks like a toy replica of the real thing, but it can print objects nearly as big as itself, up to about 4.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 inches. That matches the output of many larger printers.
Simplicity is the secret. The Micro uses PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, which melts at a lower temperature than others and doesn't require a heated print bed to stick to. After shipping models to Kickstarter backers, M3D will start selling the Micro to the public in the summer for $349. The Micro is one of the smallest printers, but it's not the only one. Makers of traditional big machines, such as Robo and Lulzbot, are releasing models with "mini" in the name, including the excellent Lulzbot Mini (see review).
2. Whisper-Quiet Printers
The trend isn't always toward small. 3D printer-maker Up, known for its Up Mini line of petite printers, has gone in the other direction with the new Up Box. Close to the size of a mini fridge, it can make objects with dimensions of up to 8 x 10 x 8 inches. Despite its size, the Up Box is meant to keep a low profile by being extremely quiet — I heard little more than a hum standing next to it — and odor-free thanks to an enclosed design and a HEPA air filter.
The Up Box goes on sale shortly for $1,899, which includes one year of free parts replacement and 24/7 tech support to deal with annoyances that inevitably arise. "Customer service is going to be the name of the game," said Brian Quan of Up's parent company Tiertime.
MORE: Best 3D Printers
3. Cooler, Custom-Made Toys
Many 3D-printed toys are just shabbier, more-expensive versions of what you could get at Toys "R" Us or online. Mark Trageser of 3D-printed toy company InsaniTOY is using the technology to churn out original concepts based on any whacky idea that comes to mind — almost instantly. For example, he had an idea for a lamp in the shape of a spider, with the light bulb mounted in the critter's body. "That spider, between concept to being on sale on Amazon — seven hours," said Trageser.
He also pointed to the ability to experiment with materials, such as a toy car printed in semi-flexible nylon on an SLS (selective laser sintering) printer. It came out fully assembled with the wheels on and the axel mounted to functioning shock absorbers. 3D printing and online selling allow Trageser to produce niche, made-to-order products without worrying about getting shelf space for them at a retail store, and his toys stay on sale indefinitely. "I don't have to take my products off the shelf," he said.
4. Full-Body 3D Scans
People aren't cloning themselves yet, but they can make extremely accurate replicas that rival Madame Tussauds' handiwork. And you don't have to go to a special facility to do it. Artec, which makes 3D scanners, recently started selling a full-body scanner called Shapify — a rotating drum of cameras and lights the size of a small bedroom — to locations including malls and supermarkets.
"Anyplace where people are ready to spend money on cute things," said Artec's director of sales Julia Bulakh. The device captures a full scan in about 12 seconds, allowing people to hold some creative poses, like freezing midstride. The 3D models are cleaned up automatically and sent off to a printer if the customer decides to order a mini-me keepsake. Want your own scanner? It costs $99,000, with 3,000 scans included.
5. The Rise of Resin Printing
Traditional FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3D printers are typically limited to a plastic layer resolution of 0.1 millimeters. That may sound very fine, but the resulting ridges are often easy to see and feel. Instead of squeezing out plastic, resin printers use light to turn a photosensitive liquid into a solid, one layer at a time, and with layers at least five times smaller than with FDM, at 0.02 mm. That's fine enough to make tiny figurines (that can then be painted) or molds for casting intricate jewelry.
Resin printing isn't new, but it's becoming more affordable. Formlabs Form +1 printer, which excelled in our review, sells for $3,299. A company called SprintRay is launching a Kickstarter project for its MoonRay resin printer, priced at $2,499. That's in line with higher-end FDM printers, like the $2,899 MakerBot Replicator. SprintRay aims to cut costs, in part, by using fewer parts. It's also different because it uses a projector with an ultraviolet LED instead of lasers, as the Form +1 does. See it in action in the stunning video below.
6. Superstrong Carbon-Fiber Prints
Carbon fiber is a dream material due to its combination of strength and lightness. But it's a nightmare for 3D printing, as it won't stick to itself. MarkForged has found a fix by layering carbon-fiber filaments with Kevlar in a traditional FDM printing process. The company's Mark One printer makes objects strong enough to use in place of metal, for example in specialized tools that would cost a fortune to produce in limited quantities with traditional forged manufacturing.
The Mark One starts at $5,500, but it's not intended for your desktop. The company is targeting clients like aerospace firms and the military.
7. Metallic, Rubbery and Other Exotic Materials
Carbon fiber isn't the only new 3D printing material, and many of the others don't require a special printer — just a typical FDM model that can handle high temperatures. Among the new substances are nylon, metal-infused filaments and a rubbery substance called NinjaFlex. Objects, or even parts of objects, made from NinjaFlex can have more or less give depending on how you print the object. For example, it can be very stiff if printed as a solid object versus more flexible with an internal honeycomb structure. Aside from making fun rubbery toys or tchotchkes, NinjaFlex has the potential to be used in practical objects like shoes.
8. 3D Clothing You Could Actually Wear
Printed fashion is still an experimental area, often used more to simply show what can be done. But clothes you could almost imagine wearing are starting to appear. Design firm N Topology recently showed a one-piece dress printed in an intricate, multilayer weave of TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) — a stretchy material that hugged the model's body but flexed to let her move easily.
Going up a notch, designer Melinda Looi and printing company Materialise created an Oscar-party-worthy dress made from thousands of interlocking white pieces of polyamide, a slightly flexible material with a grainy finish. No assembly was required: The dress came out of the SLS printer in final form, folded in thirds. It cost "thousands of Euros" to make the dress, said a representative of Materilise, and that was before affixing thousands of Swarovski crystals.
Most buyers of 3D-printd fashion will wear simpler, but also more useful products, such as sneakers with well-tuned levels of strength or flex. "The first consumer-facing [3D-printed] products will most likely come from sports-apparel makers," said Greg Schroy of N Topology.
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Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.