By Bart Van der Schueren

Since being founded in 1990, Materialise has been active in the field of 3D printing and over the years, has seen this technology evolve tremendously. 3D printing has gone from a young, relatively unknown technology suited to producing realistic yet fragile prototypes, to a technology capable of capturing the world’s imagination and drastically changing how the objects in our lives are designed and produced. Although a whole range of industries are affected by this technology, it is 3D printing’s ability to directly involve consumers in the design process that has many truly excited.

MOVING BEYOND ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL

To begin, it is important to state that over the past years, there have been some fairly dramatic changes happening in how consumers find, choose and purchase products – and the power of the individual consumer has been increasing as a result. From books, to shoes, to toys and beyond, people are able to find and purchase products worldwide from an ever expanding selection of online shops. Consumers are no longer limited to choosing from among the items in a nearby shop or catalog, and this is driving demand for better products that truly cater to their needs and desires. Now, thanks to 3D printing, consumers are able to take this demand for better products to the next level. More and more creative individuals are now discovering the possibility to design or customize an amazing array of items, many of them one-of-a-kind and suited to their exact needs and wants. And, as the barriers to digital design start to fall, this number will increase.

OVERCOMING THE CHALLENGES OF DIGITAL DESIGN

GPS holder by Wannes Schuerman - printed in ABS plastic by i.materialise

GPS holder by Wannes Schuerman – printed in ABS plastic by i.materialise

Up until now, one of the largest hurdles for consumers who have wanted to 3D print an object has been coming up with a printable design. Although CAD has been around for a long time, most of the available programs have been very difficult to learn and use, preventing all but trained professionals or determined hobbyists from designing objects for 3D printing. However, there are a growing number of design programs (like Tinkercad, AutoDesk 123D®, 3D Tin and SketchUp) that take much of the complexity out of the process, making CAD accessible to amateurs and, more importantly, children. There are also websites starting up that offer consumers the ability to customize available designs, bypassing the need to learn CAD altogether. By adding text and adapting the basic design through a set library of options, consumers can order unique 3D printed phone covers, jewelry, lamps, awards and a growing number of other products. There is even a website, called Thingiverse, through which people can share, adapt and download an ever expanding selection of printable files.

BRINGING IDEAS TO LIFE THROUGH 3D PRINTING

Eagle head bottle opener by Andrew Martin - printed in bronze by i.materialise

Eagle head bottle opener by Andrew Martin – printed in bronze by i.materialise

With a design ready to print, all that needs to be decided is how and where to bring it to life. Some prefer to do this at home. With self-assembly kits available for as little as 500Euro (about $657) and assembled models for 1000Euro (about $1,314) and up, 3D printers are starting to make their way into the homes of enthusiastic early adopters. These home printers work by heating a strand of plastic filament and depositing the melted plastic on a build tray, layer by layer, until an object is created – working somewhat like a computer-controlled hot glue gun. Although there are limitations in terms of resolution, accuracy and strength for the finished objects, these machines are great for quick prototyping and for having fun. For individuals interested in a higher quality finish in a wider range of materials, there are also online 3D printing services like i.materialise.com. Through this service, consumers simply upload their design, choose the material and finish, and i.materialise takes care of the 3D printing and delivery. In this way, consumers can have their designs printed in plastics as well as in a range of metals, including precious metals such as silver.

GIVING BIRTH TO A NEW BUSINESS MODEL

Japanese tea ring by Flavio Bellantuono - printed in silver by i.materialise

Japanese tea ring by Flavio Bellantuono – printed in silver by i.materialise

Some i.materialise customers do more than just order a single print of their design from the site. If they feel that their designs have a wider appeal, they can offer them for sale through i.materialise’s gallery and have them printed to meet demand – avoiding the upfront investment associated with traditional manufacturing as well as the financial risk of unsold stock. For example, a jewelry designer can offer their latest ring to a global audience and test the demand for the design. If there are no orders, no problem – and if there are, then the rings will be printed, delivered to the customer, and the designer will receive their share of the profit. And, with their product shown online, marketing can be achieved through Facebook, Twitter and other new media channels, quickly reaching a world-wide audience and driving demand for their product. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of consumer 3D printing: the fact that consumers can not only create products that better serve their own needs and interests, but also start to sell the result to others like them. As this aspect of 3D printing grows, there is no telling how far it will go.

Dr. M.Sc. Bart Van der Schueren is the Executive Vice President at Materialise.