The problem with 3-D printers is that, for all their promise, they haven't been able to match the incredible range of colors and materials available to traditional manufacturing. Industry insiders know that better than anyone, which is why several options now exist to print in multiple materials or multiple colors -- but until recently, you couldn't do both in the same machine at the same time.
On Monday, Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) launched "the first and only 3-D printer to combine colors with multi-material 3-D printing," the Objet500 Connex3. While it's not the first in the high-end Connex lineup (Objet has offered multi-material printing since 2007 and multi-color printing with different materials since 2012), this latest Connex3 model is apparently the first to simultaneously combine different materials and different colors in the same object during the same print run. The bicycle helmet to the left of this text, for example, is an example of a custom-blended material that's been "painted" during its print run. Below, you'll also see examples of transparent materials (the glasses) and flexible materials (the shoes), both of which were printed all at once in a single run.
This is a big step forward in 3-D printing's quest to topple traditional manufacturing. When Stratasys rival 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) launched its consumer line of Cube 3-D printers two years ago, I pointed out that its material limitations would restrict its usefulness to the average home user, regardless of the range of colors offered in its plastic cartridges. 3D Systems will likely be launching a "pro" version of the Cube this year that promises three simultaneous colors and two different materials at the same time, but that's still a long way from the production-quality functionality 3-D printing needs. Still, it's a big step in the right direction.
Of course, all this variety comes at a cost. The Objet500 Connex3 is not a desktop printer -- it's a bit larger than a full-scale office copier -- and it'll set you back a cool $330,000. This shouldn't be too surprising given the complex engineering challenges that Stratasys and Objet had to overcome to make a machine that could not only blend materials, but color them as well. It also provides a worthwhile reference point for potential long-term-pricing declines for this type of technology. When the Cube was released in 2012, it had a similar print resolution to a top-of-the-line Stratasys machine introduced in the year 2000. Both the Cube and the 14-year-old Stratasys machine used ABS plastic in a single color. The Cube cost $1,300, a 99.6% decrease in price from the Stratasys machine's inflation-adjusted cost of $312,600.
Does that mean we can expect low-cost desktop 3-D printers to arrive some time in 2025 that will be able to print us up some new Oakleys or a nice new pair of custom-fitted Adidas cleats for soccer practice? The answer might be yes and no at the same time. The cost of the technology will undoubtedly decline as the technology matures and eventually goes off-patent. It was the patent expirations of fused deposition modeling technologies several years ago that directly led to the rise of today's desktop 3-D printers, and multi-color and multi-material 3-D printers are already several years old.
On the other hand, the use of complex materials, which must be formulated just so to produce both the properties (transparency, flexibility, etc.) and color designs seen here, are likely to be harder to bring down in price. Anyone who's bought an inexpensive inkjet printer only to later discover that a cartridge refill costs nearly as much as the machine will be familiar with the razors-and-blades model that 3-D printer manufacturers are already pursuing.
The added complexity of designing not only the shape and color of a complex object, but its material properties as well, will also likely pose a high entry barrier for most home users. How many of your friends are experts at using Photoshop, or other high-level image-editing tools? Probably not many. The skill level necessary to become expert at 3-D modeling and material composition will be higher, and that factor alone is bound to help 3-D printed designs hold their value (as long as adequately copy-protected design libraries can be built on the iTunes model). The machine itself may become a commodity, but the materials and the designs to make something useful of them will retain more of their pricing power.
Printing your own shoes or sunglasses will be out of reach this year, but it won't stay that way forever. You might even be able to order fully customized gear, fresh out of the 3-D printer, by 2025.