At CES: 3D printing grows up, but still looking for the killer app

CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

The 3D printing section of the Consumer Electronics Show was seriously crowded, and it was hard to get close to a lot of the machines to have a close look. However it was clear that the biggest trend is to make what was previously and early-adopter DIY device into a much more user-friendly, easy to use consumer product.


makerbotMakerbot/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Bre Prettis, head of Makerbot, called it an "ecosystem" of "point and shoot" printers, scanners and software. Their new mini costs only $1299 and is truly plug and play. The new machines have detectors in their print heads so that if it runs out of filament, it just stops and picks up again when you add more. There are automatic levelling tables to ensure that everything is straight. There is new software to make it easy to organize and share designs, and online shops where customers can buy designs made by pros.

chunky trucksMakerbot/Screen capture

Alas, we are still at the stage of 3D printing that people are figuring out what to make with them other than plastic junk; Prettis proudly announced that one of the first lines would be "chunky trucks".


ChefjetLloyd Alter/ Chefjet/CC BY 2.0

Everyone wanted a piece of the Chefjet, which turns out complicated shapes of sugar or chocolate.According to the press release,

“Food is an incredible platform for creativity, experimentation, and celebration and we are thrilled to place these powerful 3D printers in bakers and chefs’ kitchens,” said Liz von Hasseln, Creative Director Food Products, 3DS. “We invite leading pastry chefs, restaurateurs and event planners to join us in bringing 3D printing into the kitchen.”

Chefjet© Chefjet

However I have to say that it was not particularly delicious and the complicated candies were pretty fragile.


FormlabsLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Printing out in ABS or PLA is pretty low-res, which is why the serious 3D printing is done with stereolithography. Formlabs's machine hasn't changed much, but the software has been improved to make it much easier to use.

Formlabs' ultimate goal is to create "one-click 3D printing", making printing a 3D model as easy as printing a 2D photo. The new software represents another step in making 3D printing as easy and reliable as possible, according to the company.

XYZ Printing

xyzLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Da Vinci 1.0 got a lot of attention because of its price: $499, cheaper than some 2D printers. It has an easy-to-change filament cartridge system and a pretty big build volume (8"cube) for such an inexpensive machine. According to PC Magazine,

Users can find 3D object files at XYZ World, an open-source 3D cloud library, featuring thousands of downloadable designs. XYZ World includes pre-loaded designs that users can modify and customize to their preference. Users can upload and share their own designs with the community as well, and rate designs using a user-generated five-star rating system.

So what's it all for?

rattatouiLloyd Alter/ useful stuff made on 3D printer/CC BY 2.0

Kenneth Olson of DEC was famously misquoted when he said "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." While 3D printing has many uses in business and design, nobody at CES made a persuasive case for what anyone would do with it in a home, other than make toys, dolls and iphone cases.

sushiLloyd Alter/ just what we needed/CC BY 2.0

At TreeHugger we have been talking about the wonders that await us. "It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary." But it will have to get beyond the printed sushi and chunky truck stage.

printed junkLloyd Alter/ printed junk/CC BY 2.0

At CES: 3D printing grows up, but still looking for the killer app
It was more about evolution than revolution as printers get cheaper and easier to use.

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