Since the first 3-D printer was introduced in 1984, the technology has seen limited popularity in both government and consumer marketplaces. In those early days, it was looked upon as a sort of niche utility, only useful for architects and engineers needing a unique part, and has had this reputation until relatively recently.
As Christopher Mims of Quartz puts it:
“One thing a lot of observers don’t understand about 3-D printing is that not all 3-D printing technologies are created equal. The revolution in manufacturing that was supposed to come with cheap, desktop 3-D printers hasn’t materialized because, frankly, the models they produce are basically novelties, handy for giving you a feel for what something will look like in three dimensions, but not really usable for creating prototypes that can be directly translated into molds for mass production, and certainly not usable for creating finished goods.”
Only in the last few years have commonplace uses for 3-D printing been developed, and these printers have been drawing a bit more attention from the end-user market.
But even with its newfound popularity, one thing has been keeping 3-D printers from getting more widespread manufacture (and, of course, that drop in price that comes with more competition). Certain patents for some of the processes involved in various types of 3-D printing are still being enforced. But that will change in February of 2014, when several key patents expire.
One of the patents in question involves possibly the least expensive method of 3-D printing. “Selective laser sintering” is a constructive technique that uses a high-power laser to fuse particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass together to form the required shapes. This is used by 3-D printing service providers such as Shapeways, who are constantly reporting operating at maximum capacity because they can’t get more industrial printers to meet demand. Once these patents expire, this will no doubt change, as such printers will start to become cheap enough for many end users to own.
As more and more people are able to get their hands on a 3-D printer, we can also expect a surge of ideas for ways to make use of them.