Personal 3D Printers: What’s Next?


Model AW3D HDL, 3D Printer. Image: Airwolf 3D

Everybody seems to want a personal 3D printer these days, which is a big reason why the 3D printer industry is poised to take off.  According to research firm SmarTech, the industry will be worth $1.1 billion by 2019, compared with $185 million today. New technological advances in how to print, scan, create, and share 3D content are greatly improving the functionality and ease of use of 3D printers for consumers.

Best of all, prices are dropping, making 3D printers more affordable across many markets, ranging from home models costing several hundred dollars to large metal fabrication machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We are seeing exceptional growth in the low end of the market, where desktop 3D products priced less than $10,000 are being introduced with more features and functionality, at a fraction of the cost of traditional products,” says Mark Mathews president of Airwolf 3D, Costa Mesa, CA. “This is opening the door to mass acceptance by consumers and engineers alike. With improved ease of use, greater availability of content, and a desire to accelerate product development cycles, desktop 3D printing will soon be an accepted and expected part of an engineer's prototyping and design process.”

A major improvement driving 3D printer growth is the greater range of printing materials available. “Just a few years ago the choices were ABS and PLA,” says Rick Pollack, founder of MakerGear, Beachwood, OH. “Now we have an explosion of materials to choose from, including ADS, PLA, nylon, PET, and polycarbonate. They come in different variations and colors, or carbon-fiber reinforced or engineered for higher temperatures. Having so much flexibility on a desktop, at an affordable price, is a very big deal.”

For the Engineer

3D printing of a foot bone. Image: Suljo

Engineers are drawn to the wide range of materials, large print volumes (up to 12" x 8" x 12"), and rugged designs that use industrial-grade parts and components. These machines are typically used for rapid prototyping and short-run production. For prototyping, engineering can reduce prototyping time by 75 percent by printing parts in a matter of hours, compared to the weeks it takes to get parts using traditional production methods. This way engineers can iterate more designs in less time, increasing their productivity.

“An added benefit is that the cost drops dramatically from hundreds or thousands of dollars to tens of dollars per prototype,” says Matthews. “And when prototyping is done and the design is finalized, an initial short-run production can be accomplished with the machine until the expense of traditional methods of mass production like casting or tooling become justified.”

Many mechanical engineers prefer dual extruder models because they can print the same material in two different colors. More importantly, the dual extruders allow them to print objects with complex geometries by dedicating one print head to laying down a support layer for the other head. “The user employs a dissolvable filament for the support structure, which can be removed in a process similar to ‘lost wax’ casting, to reveal a highly accurate—and often functional—prototype,” says Matthews.

On the Horizon

Improving build speed is a top priority among 3D printer manufacturers. Currently it takes about 2-4 hours to build a component. A company called Carbon 3D has developed an ultrafast process that prints a finished object in about seven minutes. The company claims the finished part “has the same structural integrity as injection-molded parts, due to the fact that its printing process is layerless,” reports Michael Molitch-Hou, editor in chief for 3D Printing Industry. “Through the use of an oxygen-permeable build window, the machine is able to tightly control the exposure of light to prints in an almost seamless manner.”

Wireless connectivity is also in high demand. Consumers want their personal 3D printers to be connected. “Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connection liberate prime real estate on the desktop,” statesLeslie Langnau, managing editor for Design World Network. “Consumers can place their personal 3D printers in more convenience locations. Additionally, connected printers free up the consumer’s computer to do other things.”

Matthews says Airwolf 3D will continue to push the technology boundaries of desktop 3D printing. “We are always amazed at how our products are being used, such as printing parts for satellites, manufacturing prototypes in industrial companies, doing renderings for architectural firms or artist studios, and creating prosthetics for deserving children,” he says.

He also points out that, as engineers and designers become more knowledgeable about 3D printing, they will break through the barriers of traditional manufacturing methods and start designing parts and products that use all the capabilities of 3D printing. “This is particularly exciting for the newest generation of engineers still in high school and in universities,” says Matthews. “It will be a much different world for them ten years from now.”

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Learn more about the latest technologies in 3D printing at ASME’s AM3D 2015.

We are seeing exceptional growth in the low end of the market, where desktop 3D products priced less than $10,000 are being introduced.

Mark Mathews, president, Airwolf 3D


August 2015

by Mark Crawford,