The Inside 3D Printing Conference in NYC gave us a clear look at the business side of 3D printing. Usual suspects, like 3D Systems, MakerBot and Stratasys, attended in full force. So did some up-and-comers like FormLabs, ZoomRP, Sculpteo, Mbot, and MakerGear. Shapeways (based in New York) was noticeably absent, though CEO Peter Weijmarshausen gave a keynote speech and announced that the company would receive $30 million in new investments.
Lots of Energy
As an independent entrepreneur who’s always looking for new ways to surprise and delight my customers, I enjoyed seeing all the new tools and opportunities that are becoming available to folks like me.
I spoke directly with Sculpteo’s Nora Touré to ask some questions about pricing. In the process I found out about Sculpteo’s platform for unbranded web tools. This software provides customizable interfaces that designers can host on their own sites, with no outside logos. Yet once a customer designs their object using the interface, the results can be sent directly to Sculpteo’s printers.
Matt Griffin’s presentation showed us a wide array of tools currently used in 3D design and printing. His videos of people actually doing the design–in real time or sped up–really conveyed some of the raw energy that comes into the creative process.
The conference was also full of investors talking to people like me in order to find out what excited us about the future of 3D printing. Big investors like T. Rowe Price and BB&T as well as smaller players flocked to the Inside 3D Printing Conference looking for the Next Big Thing.
The Materials We Have
For me, a major theme of the conference was the idea of designing objects based on the particular capacities of 3D printer technology.
Ulf Lindhe of Netfabb discussed the challenges and opportunities created by the structural limits of 3D printing. (Netfabb is best known for the advanced mathematical work around STL repair; this topic was an interesting departure.)
3D printers generally output one of a limited range of simple substances. Because these substances must be manipulated by the printer, we might guess that they couldn’t be very strong.
This idea comes from a traditional correlation between strength and density.
Lindhe urged us to think more creatively about strength in design, observing that nature itself has produced coutnless examples of strong low-density structures.
3D designers can learn from these structures how to make the best use of the limited materials available to us.
Paper Goes 3D
Perhaps the most creative new technology on display at the conference was Mcor’s IRIS printer. This machine prints ink onto sheets of regular 8.5″ x 11″ paper–which are then stacked up, glued together, and precision carved with a tungsten carbide blade. The printer saves time by printing the color on the next sheet of paper in the chamber below while it cuts and glues the previous piece.
The resulting formations can be coated with epoxy, which leaves them sturdy enough to use for real mechanical work. With the epoxy, IRIS can even produce a working bottle opener.
The IRIS has two major advantages. First, it enables much more vivid and subtle color than has been possible for previous printers. The printer can therefore create objects with unprecedented photorealism. Though many of Mcor’s display pieces are still single color, we saw convincing printouts of human faces made with IRIS. Expect more of these as Inside 3D Printing goes on tour.
IRIS also uses very simple materials. Using primarily office paper and colored ink, plus a small amount of glue, IRIS is the closest thing we have to a 3D version of the 2D printer. Mcor even claims that the low materials cost for IRIS will offset the printer’s $40,000 price tag.
While I have no intention of personally buying an IRIS printer any time soon, the development of this technology indicates to me that the possibilities for 3D printing are expanding fast.
More photos of the event can be seen here.