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According to Founder & Designer at Bits to Atoms & Shapeways 3D printing advocate Duann Scott, the technology which could revolutionize the manufacturing industry is being held back by one thing: patents.
Scott says that in February this year, key patents which prevented advances in 3D printing and limited competition expired. The technology, known as laser sintering -- is a low-cost manufacturing process used in 3D printing, and allows for low-volume product creation.
The importance of laser sintering in 3D printing cannot be expressed enough, as the manufacturing technique produces goods that can be sold on as finished products. Not only this, but potential to produce low volumes of product has given birth to companies like Shapeways, who print designs for those who cannot afford their own machines.
As key patents expire, we expect that 3D printers may follow the route of fused desposition modeling printers, used in the manufacture of thermoplastic products.
When FDM printer patents expired, 3D printing was born from the ashes, and just a few years after patent expiry the price of FDM printers dropped from thousands of dollars to as little as a few hundred.
We expect that the expiry of patents will lead to an open-source revolution in the next few years, and as a rise in competition forms, the price of 3D printers will drop.
At the moment, home printers cost more than a thousand dollars -- such as the MakerBot Replicator Mini, for $1,375 -- but five years ago, they were far too expensive for the average household to consider purchasing.
An additional element is the interest of China in 3D printing. The China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance plans to invest $3.3 million in the creation of 3D printing innovation centers in 10 Chinese cities. If the Asian country becomes involved in the manufacture of printers, it is likely that a flood in the European market could further drive down prices.
While Shapeways and Makerbot have already opened digital stores with 3D printed products and schematics respectively -- and it is possible to obtain others from torrents -- the idea is yet to fully take off.
We predict that more of these businesses will open over the next few years. While traditional printers are simply connected to a computer and print off documents, 3D printers are more reliant on core technology and software, and so a few apps to help with 3D modeling have also appeared in the Apple App store, Google Play and Windows Store.
It is likely that as the technology develops in the consumer realm, a dedicated app store will appear, as well as a dominant source for 3D files and schematics.
The cheap and lightness of material, as well as the precision of parts made possible through 3D printing software, has already improved reconstructive procedures -- and made it possible for those who have lost limbs to be equipped with prosthetics they may not otherwise have been able to afford or have access to.
In the next five years, we can expect this trend to continue, and perhaps 3D printed parts will become commonplace for the next generation of surgeons.
There are several companies that have jumped on the 3D bandwagon to offer 3D printing services to consumers that cannot afford their own machinery at home.
Shapeways, an online firm, allows artists, designers and consumers to create and upload their own designs before choosing materials -- whether plastic, stainless steel, silver or ceramic -- prints them, and ships the products worldwide. The service is in such high demand that weeks are required before products are shipped. MakerBot recently opened a store that lets customers download schematics for products to print at home.
These businesses have been formed due to investment and innovation in the industry, and rising competition as well as potential profit will make more businesses join the fray.
We predict that the low cost of production and a decline in the price of 3D printers will prove to be the catalyst for the industry to expand, and eventually, 3D-printed products will be commonplace -- in the same way that smartphones replaced feature phones.
All of this attention has already grabbed the attention of household names including Hewlett-Packard, Strayasys and Epson, but don't be surprised if other companies jump on the bandwagon.
Apple, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft are just some firms that may decide 3D printing has its uses. Whether it be through implementing 3D printing to cut down on production costs and improve efficiency in supply chains, or directly developing a way to create cheap 3D printers for the home, big brands are likely to want a slice of the action.
Amazon, for example, could create an online store to compete with Shapeways and offer 3D printing of files, or Google may decide to set up a schematics programme for the design and sharing of 3D files. Microsoft has built 3D printer support in to Windows 8.1, and has released an app to help you create your own objects.