There are many barriers delaying the truly widespread adoption of 3-D printing.
One of them is the size of the devices. Printing out a handheld toy is neat, but we use so many things that are, well, bigger. Another roadblock is multi-material capability. I covered both of these issues early in the year in my article titled "The Death of Manufacturing is Coming... Eventually," in which I compared an early Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) industrial printer with the recently announced 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) Cube. The problem with the Cube was, and remains, that it's barely more than a toy, small and materially limited. What I suggested was, instead, that:
There's no reason the technology can't take a prominent place in home improvement warehouses to, say, print customized flooring or ensure there are enough snow shovels before a blizzard. The only restrictions are material cost and printable size. Instead of shrinking, 3-D printers should be getting bigger and more efficient. A six-foot tall printer should be able to craft something that's not much smaller than its own footprint.
Let's fast-forward to the present day.
I didn't accurately peg the industry that would first move on installing the technology in its stores -- Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) became the first company to announce in-store 3-D printing services late last month -- but that doesn't preclude its later adoption by Home Depot (NYSE:HD) to print snow shovels on demand. I'm actually impressed that Staples moved so quickly implementing an in-store service using technology that most people appear to view as a step removed from magic.
Sizing up appears now to be a very real trend in the industry. Last month, one of the biggest stories around Skyfall looked past the character depth of its villain (is an Oscar in store?) and explored its 3-D printed stunt Aston Martins, made for a more realistic-looking kaboom that wouldn't risk a priceless original. Printing something a third of the size of a real car is no mean feat, but the final result was so realistic that you just can't tell the difference. The mean machines that printed up their own wheels were made by Voxeljet, a privately held industrial 3-D printing company that has a distribution agreement with 3D Systems. That's step one toward blowing up the scale.
Step two is really blowing it up. Objet, which just completed its merger with Stratasys, unveiled the Objet 1000 at the end of November. It's a 3-D printer so large that its print area requires its own set of unloading equipment. You could feasibly print up an entire bike frame in one pass with this thing, which can hold one NFL running back's (240 pounds) worth of print material, and can print with up to 14 materials in the same job. One of the first mega-objects printed by this massive machine, probably as a proof of concept, is an adjustable wrench that's over four feet tall. You won't fix anything with it, but doesn't this line up perfectly with the whole "print your own shovel" idea? If any industry could properly use this sort of scale as an on-demand service, it's home improvement warehouses.
Now, if only they could print a little bit faster. That gigantic wrench took several days to complete, a time frame that simply will not cut it if on-demand 3-D printing expects to scale up for widespread consumer applications. I need to tighten something really big right now.
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