Widespread adoption of 3D printing technology may not be that far away, according to a Gartner report predicting that enterprise-class 3D printers will be available for less than $2,000 by 2016.
With the technology set to become less expensive than some modern-day PCs, Gartner research director Pete Basiliere says the futuristic capabilities of 3D printers could be available far sooner than many had thought.
"From descriptions of exciting current uses in medical, manufacturing and other industries to futuristic ideas — such as using 3D printers on asteroids and the moon to create parts for spacecraft and lunar bases — the hype leads many people to think the technology is some years away when it is available now and is affordable to most enterprises," Basiliere said in a Gartner press release.
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3D printers are already in use among many businesses, from manufacturing to pharmaceuticals to consumers goods, and have generated a diverse set of use cases. As a result, the capabilities of the technology have evolved to meet customer needs, and will continue to develop to target those in additional markets, Gartner says.
"Furthermore, enterprise uses for 3D printers have expanded as capabilities of 3D scanners and design tools have advanced, and as the commercial and open-source development of additional design software tools has made 3D printing more practical," Gartner says. "Gartner believes that the commercial market for 3D print applications will continue expanding into architectural, engineering, geospatial and medical uses, as well as short-run manufacturing."
Comparing the impact of 3D printing to that of ecommerce, Gartner says the technology holds the potential to fundamentally change how business transactions are conducted. Businesses can create physical prototypes and architectural models much easier, and in some cases could enable customers to print the final purchased product from their own 3D printers, Gartner says.
This potential will drive the cost of 3D printers down as businesses look to take advantage of new business models, Gartner says.
3D printing technology has garnered a lot of attention lately, and not all of it has been positive. At South by Southwest Interactive earlier this month, pro-gun nonprofit Defense Distributed discussed its 3D printing capabilities for firearm parts, such as a magazine for an AK-47 assault rifle. Although the organization has faced some legal setbacks, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives granted it a federal firearms license just weeks after its SXSW presentation, prompting concerns from the legal community that has seen the gun control debate heat up in recent months.
"This is a case where the technology could quickly outpace the law," Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, told IDG News Service.
The Defense Distributed controversy serves as just an example of the rapid pace of development in the 3D printing industry, which will only pick up as more businesses recognize the potential. Wohler's Associates, a 3D printing industry consulting group, estimates that worldwide sales of products and services in the industry will reach $3.7 billion by 2015.
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is email@example.com.