Technophiles and hackers are delighting over the expiration of key laser sintering patents in early 2014, which they think will open up the market for the next boom in 3D printers. If the expiration of Fused Deposition Modeling patents are any indication, we’re likely to see some interesting breakthroughs in the field. When the FDM patents expired, after all, we saw the birth of Makerbot, along with a revolution in ABS and PLA printing.
For years, we’ve been long awaiting the desktop 3D printer, though by some standards, it's already here. FDM printers start at the super accessible price of $300, and even that may be dropping soon. While they’re capable of printing gears and other components for model building, the materials (mostly plastics and waxes) are not durable enough for creating lasting prototypes for mass-production molds or finished goods.
Image: Glasskamp's Kickstarter page
What current home 3D printing technolgoy produces, largely, is tchotchkes. Fun around the house, and good for getting an idea of what a 3D design will look like in real life, but not a strong product like ceramic or metal. That said, laser sintering technology—which layers powdered metal, glass, or ceramic dropped below melting point to build models and molds—allows for the kind of finished products the masses are craving.
Already new SLS and Stereolithography technology is underway. Form Labs, a spinoff of the MIT Media Lab, currently has a SL desktop printer that makes laser-accurate resin molds. The Form1 costs a cool $3,300 and the lab has already had legal trouble bringing the product to market. Last year, Andreas Bastian unleashed open source plans for a low-tech SLS printer that prints in wax, and the University of Twente in the Netherlands has developed a rapid prototyping machine called Pwdr. Let’s not forget about the Danish heat sintering Blue Printer, which is different from SLS tech because it uses a thermal print head instead of a laser.
Shapeways' printed silver
We can also expect to see a slew of new production out of China. The Alliance of China 3D Printing Technology has already invested a lot of money into developing innovation centers for the development of 3D technologies. China will also likely see an uptick in manufacturing from 3D printers worldwide. Most recently, 3D printer giant Stratasys announced it will be moving more of its production to China to meet demands for their products.
What does this means for consumers? More self-made products on the market. Right now, Shapeways leads the pack for outsourced manufacturing of homemade 3D designs in everything from plastic to gold to ceramics. With the restrictions off SLS tech, designers will potentially be able to do their own printing in studio.
That means more products will be available for sale faster than we can think of needing them. Like accessories for that Google-Glass you don’t have yet. Even 3D-printed gun-maker Cody Wilson says he’s started working on sintered nylon magazines. But, he adds, right now FDM still reigns supreme.