Cheap 3D Printers: Is the Inkjet Era Over?

In the early 1950s, inkjet printer technology began to take shape. By the late 1970s, companies like Epson, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and IBM were on the inkjet bandwagon, developing ways for these printers to reproduce digital images. Today virtually every office, home, and school uses inkjet technology. But the era of ink-only may be coming to an end with the rise of 3D printing technology: devices which can create things like rocket parts, replacement organs, or clothing. Advocates of this technology say cheap 3D printers are just around the corner — but is this really the cusp of a print revolution?


3D Printing Basics

In 1984, Charles W. Hull patented the term “stereolithography,” which is a way to create three-dimensional objects by first developing a cross-sectional pattern of the object. Simply put, 3D printers take the manufacturing process and turn it on end. Instead of carving out parts from a larger piece — for example, cutting a piece of drywall to fit perfectly — 3D printers start with a pattern and create, layer by layer, any item needed. In a recent TED talk, Bastian Schaefer of Airbus argues for a jumbo jet created with a massive 3D printer, saying one of the main advantages would be a lack of waste, since there would be no “extra” materials required.

Just Like Inkjet… Sort Of

Inkjet printers are like very basic forms of their 3D counterparts. These printers “spray” a small amount of ink onto the pages they create, resulting in text or images that are slightly raised from the surface of the paper. If you were to print, with an inkjet printer, the same word fifty or one hundred times over in the same spot on the same page, it would gain height in addition to length and width, making it three-dimensional. In fact, the common 3D printing technique of fused deposition modeling works by pushing heated materials through a tube — almost identical at a basic level to inkjet technology. Inkjets, however, are limited to ink and paper, while 3D printers can use any material to create almost anything.

The Future of 3D

The cost of 3D printing is coming down; crowd-funded startups like Formlabs now produce a desktop 3D printer for just over $3,000 that lets you print out objects up to 4.9×4.9×6.5 inches and includes all necessary materials and software to get you started. Shapeways, meanwhile, runs an eCommerce site where users can upload their designs and then have them printed and shipped worldwide. And companies like the US-based Modern Meadow as well as Systems and Materials Research Corporation see 3D printing as a way to tackle world hunger by synthesizing healthy food that can last up to 15 years or by creating meat made from stem cells rather than harvested from animals.

Don’t throw away your inkjet just yet: While public access to cheap 3D printers is on the rise, both the price-per-item and time required to create even simple objects means these printers aren’t going to turn up in big-box stores in the near future. But the wealth of startups and government interest in 3D printing puts it well past the “infancy” stage of development; in five years, expect to see a very different market.