A technology area that drew increased interest and investor capital last year was 3D printing. While the underlying mechanics have been around for over 30 years, it has recently become a hot topic for both consumers and business leaders. It combines many tech domains such a software, materials science, manufacturing, optics and both mechanical and electrical engineering. It changes the way we think about building things because rather than using “subtractive” methods, like cutting blocks of material or “formative” methods using molds, it uses “additive” techniques. Items are built layer by layer from digital design files using many different printing technologies. It has the power to create a multitude of niche, personalized products as well as enabling a transformation in industrial manufacturing on a global scale.
Promising applications for healthcare such as skeletal implants, prosthetics, replacement windpipes, facial implants and dentistry are already emerging. Companies like Align Technologies for straighter smiles and Organovo for living tissues are leading the way. Scientists are growing human cells from biopsies or stem cells then using 3D printers to arrange them in ways the human body does. VentureBeat reports that there were more than 50 new startups raising capital in 2014 and over 40+ crowdfunding projects. There was even a 3D printed car by Local Motors at the Detroit Auto Show. The underlying technologies such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Model (FDM Stratasys) and Stereolithography (SLA) are fascinating and will continue to attract research and development talent. Some analysts characterize 3D printing in the Internet of Things category and include it in many “Top 10” technologies for 2015. It has gained a large hobbyist following and has sprung up a whole cottage industry. You can even make a 3D figurine of yourself using Doob by jumping into a 3D photo booth!