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A few thoughts on 3D printing at CES 2014

I had some time yesterday to stroll by the 3D printing pavilion at CES.  The pavilion, which featured large booths from Makerbot, 3D Systems and others, was considerably larger than last year’s 3D printing space. By my guess, there were 30 or so different 3D printing companies.

Here are some quick thoughts on 3D printing at CES 2014 based on my quick tour:

Invasion of the RepRap machines

Anyone who follows 3D printing knows that the explosion in lower cost desktop 3D printers was in large part due to a project called RepRap project,  an open source effort that served as the technical foundation for pretty much every low-cost 3D printer model (including the original Makerbot CupCake printer). The expiration of the FDM patents in 2009 added additional fuel, but much of the original low-end printer momentum started with RepRap.

And now, while not every 3D printer in the market may not use the same exact designs, pretty much most of the new startups I saw yesterday that had sub-$1000 3D printers in some way owed a tip of the hat to RepRap (and let me tell you, there were quite a few of them).

3D Systems the only of the “big two” to cross $1,000 threshold

And while a few of the startups that were displaying lower-cost 3D printing machines, the two big 3D printing companies with major IP – Makerbot/Stratasys and 3D Systems – were showing new printers that were more expensive.

That said, Makerbot is showing its first 3D printer that even gets close, the Makerbot Replicator Mini. The Mini, which will sell for $1,375, offers a much smaller print space and lower print fidelity (200 micron layer resolution vs. 100 micron for the new Replicator model), but at least the company is within sniffing distance of the $1000 price.

3D Systems offered up a new version of is Cube 3D desktop printer, the Cube 3D, which is the first product from the “big two” to dip below $1,000 price point. I still think$500 is really the price point at which we’ll start to talk about “crossing the chasm” for consumer 3D printing, but this was a big step nonetheless.

3D printing services not getting love they deserve

Sculpteo, a 3D printing services company from Europe, had a fairly sizable booth booth but hardly any traffic. No doubt, for most people at CES 3D printing is about low-cost printers, and in fact when I talked to Sculpteo CEO he had a button on this shirt (as did all of the Sculpteo booth reps) that said “we don’t make 3D printers”.

I’ve long been saying the real impact of 3D printing in the next few years will be driven by service bureaus, which is what Sculpteo is, but at CES, no one really cared. Most were interested in printers.

Thingiverse integration into Replicator line was big news

Maybe the coolest thing I saw out from Makerbot was not it’s new line of desktop 3D printers, but the integration of Thingiverse access directly into the device through a built-in LCD. The ability to click through and access 3D designs on the online database without having to use a PC was a big deal and shows how Thingiverse continues to be a strategic weapon for Makerbot (and ultimately Stratasys).