Although the revolution that is 3D printing is still somewhat in its infancy, 2014 is poised to be a big year for this ground-breaking technology. 3D printing in the UK and abroad has found a home with designers and inventors as a means of rapid prototyping for new products, but in the consumer market there has been little produced by any 3D printing service which serves a useful purpose to the man on the street. However, all that is likely to change this year, as major shifts in the 3D printing service industry start to form the shape of things to come.

What’s Changing With 3D Printing in 2014?

The biggest catalyst for change in 2014 is the fact that a number of key patents are due to expire this year. Certain patents formed at the beginning of the 3D printing revolution have restricted access to the most advanced and functional technologies for many companies, hampering competition in the marketplace and strangling innovation. The most notable of these is a patent which covers a technology known as laser sintering. This low cost, high performance 3D printing technology has the potential to produce refined products that are suitable to be sold as finished items. The access to this technology will enable more competition in the marketplace, driving down prices and raising innovation to new levels. As well as this there are a number of other key changes and developments on the horizon which are likely to change the face of 3D printing in the UK and abroad for years to come. Here we run down some of the predictions for trends in 3D printing services UK wide as 2014 rolls on.

6 Bold Predictions for 2014

Home printing

Once, having a home based 3D printer was nothing more than a pipe dream. High purchase prices and very little practical application of the technology has left the consumer market out in the cold, to some degree. However, with refinements to technology and numerous developers aiming small 3D printers at the home market, 2014 could be the year when we start seeing more and more homes with 3D printing capabilities.

3D printing for the home
Small 3D printers like the Form 1 could become common sights in modern homes

Downloadable apps

Much as you might download an app or game for your smartphone or tablet, so the open source nature of many 3D printers is opening a market for developers to create downloadable apps for the end user. This is one development that will change the course of 3D printing forever. Imagine a part on your vacuum cleaner breaking, and instead of taking it to the repair shop or ordering a spare part online, you can instead simply download the code and print off your own replacement part at home. Or, indeed, Christmas shopping could be changed forever, as you browse kids toys online and then simply pay for the design and print your presents yourself.

New materials

One of the major restrictions in 3D printing to date has been the variety and quality of the materials they are able to work with. For the purposes of rapid prototyping, the simple plastic mix we see produced by any 3D printing service in the UK has been perfectly adequate. However, if we are to aim to produce items on 3D printers which are suitable as end products, then the printers need to be able to produce items in a range of materials and finishes. Already we have started to see some of the innovations in this field, with the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) showcasing some of the things we hope our 3D printers will be doing more of this year. These included printing with sugar or chocolate, to create shapes and 3D structures that would usually have been impossible to make, as well as experiments in printing using salt, wood and a fibrous concrete that can withstand over 4 tonnes of pressure.

3D printed food
3D printed confectionery

The introduction of colours and mixed media

Until very recently, 3D printing was fairly restricted on colour and usually only used one type of material. For rapid prototyping this is fine, but for finished products, not entirely practical. But thanks to new developments by Stratasys, the owners of the MakerBot range of consumer focussed 3D printers, full colour printing using a mix of materials is now possible. Using the same processes as colour printing in 2D, basing colours on a mixture of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, Stratasys have developed full colour 3D printing which can produce hundreds of colour variations for pretty much any object. The company says that when the base materials are a combination of rubber and plastic, they can produce any object in any colour, and with a wide range of flexibilities and transparencies too.

Multi colour multi material 3d printer
Stratasys have developed technology that can 3D print with mixed materials and a wide range of colours

New scales of printing

We’ve already discussed the potential to have small scale 3D printers in our homes, but the emerging trends are being seen at the other end too. Developers are hoping to enable printing of incredibly large objects as well as household level objects, including parts for cars, possibly even entire cars and components for homes and buildings. Moves like this are being touted as changing the way the world manufactures and produces consumables forever. So flexible and useful is the world of 3D printing that even NASA have opted for a piece of the action. The International Space Station is getting its own 3D printer in 2014, ready to produce parts for the station and potentially even food for astronauts, making the station much less reliant on materials and parts launched from earth.

3D printing in space
The International Space Station (ISS) is getting its own 3D printing technology to help astronauts manufacture parts away from earth

Increased competition

By far the most exciting development for any 3D printing service in the UK or overseas is the potential for increased competition thanks to the expiration of some of the key patents around the technology. In any market, when competition is increased by more companies supplying a product, ultimately the effect is to drive the price down, making 3D printing more accessible to everyone. Overall, 2014 is shaping up to be an incredible year for 3D printing around the world. Watch this space for new developments and even more exciting applications for this ground-breaking technology in our homes, workplaces and in the very heart of our society.