Printers equipped for 3-D are poised to go mainstream, now that Hewlett-Packard plans to start selling them. The companyâ€™s inkjet and laser printers are staples in offices and homes.
The devices, which can crank out three-dimensional plastic models through a process similar to printing text on sheets of paper, have until recently been available only to high-end industrial designers. HPâ€™s devices will be targeted at a broader market of mechanical-design professionals, and will probably cost less than $15,000.
â€œThis is the boldest step we have seen so far in 3-D printing,â€ says Scott Summit, chief technology officer for Bespoke Innovations, a company that creates 3-D artifacts for medical use. â€œA lot of people want to do 3-D printing but it is a mysterious world. With HP embracing it, it is likely to demystify the idea to many consumers.â€
HPâ€™s printers will be manufactured by Stratasys, a company that specializes in 3-D printers.
The printers have long been used by designers and architects in computer aided design (CAD) to create prototypes before finalizing on the design for large-scale production. But these printers cost many thousands of dollars and have been popular with only a select group of specialists.
Over the last three years, hobbyists have found a way to make inexpensive 3-D printers, bringing the technology to do-it-yourselfers. The Makerbot, a 3-D printer that started shipping last April, costs $750 for a basic kit that includes, among other things, three NEMA 17 motors to drive the machine; nuts, bolts, bearings, belts and pulleys to assemble it; an electronics motherboard; and a pinch-wheel extruder to shape objects. A premium version of the Makerbot printer costs $950.
The HP-Stratasys line of printers are likely to be much more expensive than the Makerbot, since they are targeted at users in automotive and aerospace industries. HP and Stratasys declined to mention pricing for the upcoming line of 3-D printers. But last year, Stratasys offered an office-friendly 3-D desktop printer for around $15,000.
â€œThere are millions of 3-D designers using 2-D printers,â€ says Santiago Morera, vice president and general manager of HPâ€™s large format printing business, in a statement. â€œStratasysâ€™ technology is the ideal platform for HP to enter the market and begin to capitalize on this untapped opportunity.â€
HPâ€™s line of 3-D printers could straddle the world between hobbyists and small design businesses such as Summitâ€™s that are looking to create individualized objects for consumers.
For instance, Summitâ€™s firm has createdÂ a backpack for firefighters that is molded individually to each userâ€™s body. The backpack also doubles as a suit of armor, he says.
Another application for 3-D printers could be prosthetic limbs, because they could be customized for every individual.
Summit says, â€œ3-D printers were not used in the production stage. But it is no longer just a prototyping tool, itâ€™s become a manufacturing tool.â€
The availability of inexpensive computer aided design (CAD) programs has helped make 3-D printers accessible to more users, says Summit.
â€œFive years ago you had to pay quite a bit of money to get a program that would let you export your design file in the STL format that can be sent to the 3-D printer,â€ he says. â€œDesigners had to know Solidworks or Maya. But now you have Blender and Sketchup and other inexpensive 3-D-design programs.â€