Future forecast: four 3D printing predictions for the months ahead

Jon Lawson

2017 is already looking like a busy year for 3D printing. For the industry and end users alike, the next 12 months will be filled with opportunity. Here, according to Mark Tyrtania, is what to expect.

It is no secret. Last year was a challenging one for 3D printing. But things are looking up for 2017.

1. New mid-range hardware

Manufacturers can only release so many products every 12 months, and last year the focus was on rolling out a revamped range of entry-level MakerBots, and bedding in Stratasys’ flagship J750, a full-colour printer.

The latter turned the industry on its head and—as the first printer capable of outputting more than 360,000 colours natively—it’s taken users’ expectations to the next level.

This year, the focus will fall between these two markets since re-revving the same product areas would be needless duplication and do little to bring new users to the market. Speed increments are always welcome and, with faster processors and key components now on stream, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect improvements here.

Whether we see prices falling in sync is open to question, particularly with the global economy in a state of flux and showing no signs of improving any time soon.

But with the tech behind 3D printing starting to mature, we can hope to see manufacturers at least thinking about ways to reduce costs with a view to attracting upgrades from entry-level users and bringing a whole new audience to the platform.

2. A fresh file format

STL—the format that’s served the industry well for so long—is on its way out. It won’t disappear in 2017, but by 2020 we can expect it to be a legacy format supporting hobbyists and older machines.

In its place will be GrabCAD Print, which should go mainstream over the next 12 months. GrabCAD, the company behind the eponymous software and format, was established as a community for 3D designers who wanted to collaborate.

Before long, it was developing its own applications, and it now ships both GrabCAD Workbench, its core collaboration product, and GrabCAD Print, the software so hotly tipped for 2017.

GrabCAD Print marks a fundamental shift in the 3D workflow, which until now has required designers to translate their work from the original CAD to STL format before it can be used by the printer.

GrabCAD’s native file format cuts out this intermediate step, allowing the software to address the 3D printing hardware directly. It integrates other functions too, like repair and packaging, which would previously have required some manual wrangling using a third application like Materialise Magics.

Aside from the simplified workflow, the move to GrabCAD will give us all more meaningful interfaces and a unified working environment, which I believe will be adopted across the board sooner rather than later. 

The GrabCAD development team hasn’t been working in isolation, but building alliances with the biggest names in 3D printing, giving it the potential to be an industry standard within the next three to four years.

3. Novel materials

All the hardware and software in the world are useless without materials, and while they might not be headline-grabbers, there are innovations aplenty primed for release in 2017.

Stratasys is rolling out soluble material support across its entire PolyJet range, including printers designed for desktop use. This kind of material is used during the printing process to support otherwise overhanging parts, and it washes away once the model is complete, leaving just the finished object behind. It’s a far neater, quicker and less painstaking option than relying on designers to snap off and sand down the parts they don’t need.

This coincides with the release of a newly announced material called SR35. This dissolves more quickly than existing options to significantly shorten the overall production time.

Other, permanent materials currently coming on-stream (such as Nylon 6) are stronger and more durable, so they can be used for the small-scale production of finished parts or for more accurate test printing during an iterative development process.

4. A grand entrance

Finally, this could be the year that we welcome a new player to the 3D printing arena. Hewlett Packard (HP) has been making a lot of noise about Jet Fusion, its own take on the additive production process.

HP’s demoed some impressive development machines at trade shows throughout 2016. It’s also hired people with key industry experience to develop, market and sell the technology. Its reseller network is ready to go. If it achieves all that it claims then it’s likely to attract a whole new user base. All it needs now is a finished product.

HP can’t afford to take a high-profile gamble like this and fail which is no doubt why, compared to some of its rivals, it is pouring a lot of money into the project. The trouble is, for a company of HP’s size, its apparent bottom line still doesn’t represent a particularly significant investment.

Perhaps it hasn’t fully grasped the difference between 2D printing – where it excels – and the complexities of the third dimension, which it’s only now starting to address.

Mark Tyrtania is with Laser Lines

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