While the focus at this website has primarily been on professional and production additive manufacturing/ 3D printing systems, some of the news on personal 3D printers (3DP) is useful to professional engineers. For the past few years, most of the new personal-sized desktop 3D printers have been developed by hobbyists, artists, and young entrepreneurs excited by this industry, and many have received funding through various crowd sourcing sites, such as Kickstarter.
Two factors, though, may help shift development of these systems to the professional designer.
–The amazing growth of this industry. SmarTech, a research and forecasting firm, reports it will reach $1.1 billion by 2019, compared with $185 million today. This reported growth figure includes materials, software, and scanners as well as the 3D printers.
–The features personal 3D printers need to be really useful to the average consumer.
According to SmarTech, the buyers of personal 3D printers look for six key features. The individual or company that can deliver on these drivers could well have a highly profitable product.
1. Ease of Use
Noted SmarTech, to be truly “personal” a personal printer must be easy to use for the intelligent layman. This is especially important since the user base for personal 3DP equipment extends into younger and less experienced customer segments. This need is certainly true on the software side, but extends to hardware as well.
Preassembled units that are factory calibrated lessen the costs of starting in 3DP. Additionally, clear documentation and automatic re-calibration processes help. These are just a few of the features that help make operating 3DP equipment easy and intuitive.
An opportunity exists for making 3D printers even easier to use. This includes innovations in automatic sensing of when filament is running out, user-friendly touch-screen interfaces, and online resources. Another particularly intriguing example is the use of kinematic magnets to ensure consistent placement of removable hot beds (this technology is being developed by MarkForged, a higher-end equipment manufacturer).
Overall, personal 3DP technology is moving towards the ability to supply more accurate parts. Heated print beds, for example, seem to be standard on personal printers. Newer printers will continue to further these goals by providing print enclosures to moderate ambient temperature. Eventually, temperature-controlled enclosures for these smaller printers will become standard.
This drive towards higher part accuracy is also demonstrated by the high demand for SL-driven personal 3D printers, such as the Form 1. Stereolithography inherently offers high part detail and accuracy.
SmarTech notes that while part accuracy is important to consumers, it is not a sine qua non. Customers are willing to sacrifice some build accuracy to boost other equipment characteristics that have a bigger effect on part functionality. For instance, customers would rather have a bigger part with a few superficial defects that fulfill an application than a great looking part that is too small to fulfill the task.
3. Faster Build Speed
Reducing build speed is increasingly important as more and more inexperienced consumers enter the 3DP space who aren’t accustomed to the long wait and development times that have traditionally been associated with building a 3DP component.
The forecasters at SmarTech believe that build speed becomes irrelevant if the part accuracy required isn’t above a certain level. Nonetheless, improving build speed is a key part of personal 3D printer development and a source of competitive advantage.
4. Larger Build Envelope
Customers in the 3DP space have historically only tolerated a maximum build time of two to four hours. This time limit restricts the printer bed size to an area that current 3D printing technology can cover in that time.
Printer accuracy and materials costs also limit printer bed size. Longer continuous print times increase the chances of the 3D technology making a mistake or running out of filament. The need for accuracy also slows print speed and may restrict object size.
Advances in personal 3DP technology, however, have recently enabled larger build envelopes. These developments have been tuned to maximizing build size to serve unmet demand for larger parts printed at home. But just because a printer bed is bigger, doesn’t mean it is better. Bigger print beds lead to bigger machines that take up space, use more power, and cost more to manufacture. Initially, compact printers are more attractive to first-time purchasers, since they can be placed in an unobtrusive space.
Build envelope size could serve as a source of market differentiation moving forward. For example, the Leapfrog Creatr XL long z-dimension enables the creation of different pottery and other tall standing structures.
5. Better Reliability
Personal 3D printers must be reliable. To justify an expenditure on a serious 3D printer, customers need to know they are receiving a machine that will work for a long time. This is a characteristic that personal 3D printers have struggled with in the past. Shoddy component sourcing and the drive towards lower priced systems have resulted in cheap components that break frequently.
One- year warrantees are quickly becoming standard in the personal 3DP industry.
6. Wireless Connectivity
It is becoming increasingly important that personal 3DP printers are connected. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connection liberate prime real estate on the desktop. Instead, consumers can place their personal 3DP in more convenience locations. Additionally, connected printers free up the consumer’s computer to do other things.
SmarTech believes that wireless connection will be ubiquitous in all new generations of personal 3DP market in the next five years.