The technology for 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has existed in some form since the 1980s. However, the technology has not been capable enough or cost-effective for most end-product or high-volume commercial manufacturing. Expectations are running high that these shortcomings are about to change.
In 3-D printing, hundreds or thousands of layers of material are “printed” layer upon layer using various materials.
Even for simple products, 3-D printing still takes too long—usually hours and sometimes days. Incremental improvements as well as new methods that have the potential for an order of magnitude change will help printers meet the challenge for greater speed. “There are lots of ways to improve speed by using higher-quality components and by optimizing the designs and movement of the lasers,”
Most of today’s printers use a single printhead to deposit material. Adding more printheads that print at the same time can increase speed by depositing material faster while incorporating multiple materials or multiple colors of the same material. Multiple heads can also make many copies of the same design in the time it takes to print one.
Today’s market for 3-D printers and services is still largely bifurcated—at the low end are limited-function offerings of interest to hobbyists. At the high end are expensive printers that have a limited total available market. The key for market growth is the continuing development of printers in the middle price range to achieve advances in performance, in multi-material capability, and in printing complete systems.