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Technology: What's Next for 3-D Printing?

It's safe to say that in 2013, 3-D printing has changed manufacturing. Its impact is clear from product development to finished goods, from innovation to production. But that's only the beginning...

Additive manufacturing has been on the tip of every techie's tongue for years. But in 2013, it was finally at our fingertips, too. 

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the world's first 3-D printed part, and the industry celebrated by bringing additive manufacturing straight into the global mainstream.

In 2013, we saw machines pop up everywhere from SkyMall to the neighborhood library while printing services expanded from high-tech boutiques to UPS and Staples. Even McDonalds might jump in. 

Meanwhile, 3-D printers have invaded R&D departments across the industry; they have crept into schools and hospitals, fashion shows and restaurants. 

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On the industrial side, last year GE (IW 500/6) laid out plans to print some 45,000 fuel nozzles a year for its new LEAP engines, while NASA printed everything from nozzles to pizza.

Boeing (IW 500/14), Ford, (IW 500/8), United Technologies (IW 500/24), BAE Systems (IW 1000/167), and the whole who's who of global manufacturing have all gone in with them in a big, dramatic way. 

So it's safe to say that in 2013, 3-D printing has changed manufacturing. Its impact is clear from product development to finished goods, from innovation to production. 

But that's only the beginning. 

According to the Wohlers Report 2013, over the next seven years additive manufacturing is expected to grow into a $10.8 billion industry as prices fall, machines proliferate and applications abound. 

As this boom continues, the industry will see rapid, tumultuous changes as it finds new uses, new limits, new materials and new problems to overcome. 

To help shed light on some of these changes, Terry Wohlers -- president and principal consultant of the 3-D printing industry analysis firm Wohlers Associates -- offers a few predictions of things to come in 2014.

Six Predictions for 2014

1. A Wave of Investment: Interest among the investment community will continue through 2014. A new wave of investment will come from individuals, governments at all levels and educational institutions. Some of the largest investments will be made by the private sector, including large corporations that are new to 3-D printing.

2. New IPOs: A number of privately owned 3-D printing companies will transform their growth and development through an initial public offering. Timing could not be better due to unprecedented interest in the technology and strengthened economic conditions.

3. More Talk, More Action: More conferences, workshops, seminars and expositions will be launched in 2014 -- even more than in 2013, which set an all-time record.

4. 3-D Printing on Trial: The legal professional will cash in on potential patent infringement related to 3-D printing. We will also see the first wave of litigation associated with legal liability. It will come about as 3-D-printed products are designed by nonprofessionals and their failures cause damage, injury or worse.

5. The Hype Goes On: The hype will continue, but as the industry matures in the eyes of the general public, writers, editors, and readers will demand reporting that is based on fact and includes accurate detail on the real problems and challenges associated with the technology. 

6. China Makes a Move: As patents expire, lower-cost laser sintering systems will develop. At least one Chinese manufacturer will test the waters by selling laser sintering products internationally. 


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