Next technology steps in 3D printing

Three days ago I wrote about the barriers 3D printing has to cross from a technology point of view. To overcome these limitations some major breakthroughs are necessary which can take a decade – or maybe two or maybe never happen at all. in this post I am going to talk about what I think are developments which can (should?) happen in the coming decade.

So which technology breakthroughs do i see happen?

Color printing
To start of with the current technologies are mono-color with the exception of ZCorp. Though ZCorp only has a single material and this material is not the most useful from a functional perspective. Adding color to the plastic and polymer technologies would be very useful. It could as simple as the ability to add legible text to the part or to easily identify the orientation of the part for assembly or for end-product use.

Multiple materials
The ability to combine multiple materials is another important step. I realize this is already offered by Objet but as I wrote in my previous post this is just mixing of one polymer with another. The material properties are not that dissimilar to be very useful. I am thinking here mixing plastic with metal or plastic with polymers etc.

More variety of materials
Each technology has a standard type of materials. SLS has nylon-based materials, FDM has ABS plastic type of materials etc. There are still a wide variety of materials which cannot be 3D printed like wood, clear glass, aluminium, rubber, etc.

Embedding of mass-produced parts
There are parts which will be not be printed in the foreseeable future like sensors, RFID tags, processors, electric wiring, etc. To further increase the ability to create parts out of nothing embedding of mass-produced items during 3D printing is very useful. RFID can be used for identification of parts, sensors can be used to measure stress levels of functional parts in use, etc.

High volume production equipment
The current line up of machines are not ready yet for high volume production. The machines need attention and do not support uninterrupted production. Materials need to be swapped, trays needs to be changed, new build data has to be uploaded, machines need to cleaned after each tray etc. There is still work to do to make these machines fit into a production line where parts end up on a conveyor belt heading to cleaning and post-processing.

Desktop printers
On the other side of the spectrum we have desktop printers. The current line up of personal 3D printers are still very immature in print quality, reliability, speed and noise. They are more suited for a workshop then a desk. Also the quality of the output is limited and mostly suited for functional parts since they are based on FDM-type technology.

There is still much to do to make 3D printing grow what it is today. Even though the technology is already very useful for a lot of applications there is a world beyond that. If you are a CTO at a 3D printing company and have a budget to spend there are still many opportunities to improve the product.

When we combine these improvements 3D printers will come into the realm of product printing instead of part printing. In the end that is holy grail for this technology.