Sales of 3-D printers for personal use have exploded since 2007, mimicking the personal-computing revolution of the 1990s, as the market expands from industrial-grade systems costing as much as $1 million.
The CHART OF THE DAY shows sales of printers that create solid objects and cost less than $5,000 grew more than 35,000 percent to 23,265 in 2011 from 66 five years ago, according to a report from Wohlers Associates, Inc., a consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colorado. Sales of printers averaging $73,220 rose 31 percent, to 6,494 from 4,938.
Until recently, 3-D printing was limited to large companies that could afford the industrial machines. Daimler AG, Honda Motor Co., Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. all have used 3-D printers to fashion prototypes and make parts that go into final products.
“To me, this change is similar to the supercomputers of the 1970s that were only affordable to the major corporations, and now we’re in a period analogous to the 1980s, where the personal computer came about; now we have personal printing,” said Jeff Moe, founder of Aleph Objects Inc., a Loveland, Colorado-based maker of the less-expensive machines. “Not only does that mean that people can print in their homes, but also the engineers can even do it at companies as well.”
Most 3-D printers work by using a nozzle driven by data from a computer program to layer melted plastic or resin, creating three-dimensional objects. Some printers also can build objects made of other materials, including glass and metal. The less-expensive personal devices and open-source nature of many designs they can produce allow users to customize their own products. Personalized iPhone cases and jewelry are some of the possibilities.
Continuum Fashion, a business based in New York, has designed and printed apparel such as shoes and bikinis on one of the more-expensive machines and soon will start a service allowing buyers to submit body measurements to manufacture custom clothing, according to co-founder Jenna Fizel.
“You can’t print a bikini in your house at this point unless you’re a billionaire,” Fizel said in a telephone interview. “But I’m really excited about what is starting to be available to the home market.” Maybe “the next really awesome 3-D printing technique won’t be made in a $100,000 machine, it’ll be made in a $2,000 machine.”