3D printing didn't dominate CES, but it's very much alive

David, Goliath, and the filament wars


3D printing was everywhere at CES last year. These companies, big and small, called the Las Vegas Convention Center home. Their slice of the bigger show was bombastic, full of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Axl Rose. Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks, walked their part of the show floor. Many people left CES talking loudly about 3D printing's impact on the show.

On that scale, CES 2015 was a quiet year for 3D printing. The big companies — like MakerBot and 3D Systems — were thin on new things. "Last year was the year of huge announcements," MakerBot's VP of Product Anthony Moschella tells me in a meeting room at their booth. "This year, at least for MakerBot, we’re kind of turning a corner and really thinking more about solutions and applications — not the what but the why."

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3D printing CES

There are still big barriers to entry with 3D printing, ones not limited to price. Designing something that can be successfully printed is still a tricky task, especially for beginners who are unfamiliar with CAD software. "To get that bigger consumer penetration you need to provide tools that allow you to create without CAD," Moschella says. That's why MakerBot has developed things like a tablet application called PrintShop, which lets users model within strict parameters. It limits options, but ensures the finished product won't break apart. Its CES setup had a section devoted to Martha Stewart's new line of pantone-colored filaments, one that shows off the fruits of a partnership with GE, and a massive harbor scene diorama 3D-printed by a class of fifth graders from Connecticut.

"it's hard to manage the expectations."

"With a new technology I think that people need to have as much opportunity to see, touch, and feel what that technology is in order to understand it," MakerBot's CEO Jenny Lawton says. "But it's hard to manage the expectations of people who saw the magic of this technology and wanted it to be easy."

This year’s 3D printing showcase was moved offsite to the Sands Expo, where the closest thing to a celebrity appearance was will.i.am taking private press meetings atop 3D Systems' two-story booth.

The layout technically grew compared to last year's cramped setup — there were about 40 companies and booths here, both of varying sizes. (That's not even counting a few companies that were randomly placed in generic areas like "Innovations.") Though a few of the people behind these companies felt jilted about the relocation, no one could complain about a lack of attention. The foot traffic was constant — I spent half my week at the Sands and it was always uncomfortably crowded.

3D Printing CES

It's with these smaller startups that I found the most interesting product announcements. Nearly every one of the 20 or so I talked to were at CES to launch a product, usually a new printer. Many were also looking to either sell units or link up with distributors. Those that weren't, came focused on "brand exposure." In the shadow of the big displays of MakerBot and 3D Systems, tangible innovation is alive in the shoulder-to-shoulder booths.

There were companies that can 3D print with paper, ones with precision printing for aerospace use, ones with printers for under $400, printers that can pint upside-down. And then there’s all the new types of filament.

Welcome to the filament wars

"It's the filament wars!" an excited Sara Shepherd from Protoplant shouts as we walk over to their booth. The company makes PLA filaments branded as "Proto-pasta," a term I had heard at half the booths I visited before I met Shepherd. The company's gotten that recognition by making unusual filaments like its magnetic iron or the conductive filament it just launched last week on Kickstarter (funded in less than a day), which could eventually allow for circuit boards to be printed.

It's a "war" with filaments because the shift away from all plastic is apparent across the show floor. Multiple companies have metal composite and carbon fiber options, and even more are offering a wood filament — including MakerBot. In fact, new filaments were the only thing that MakerBot actually announced here at CES. The difference is stark: the wooden hammers in the press room at MakerBot's display felt disturbingly close to real wood, grain and all. It's the kind of innovation that could erase the unfamiliar feel that comes with the plastics that have been used up until now.

Wood filament 3d printing

Even with those advances, widespread adoption is still a good deal away. "It’s still really new, it’s an industry in its infancy," MakerBot’s Moschella says. "There’s a huge mismatch of expectation. People expect to get a Replicator home, take it out of the box and print some incredibly complex thing in some exotic material."

"I read about you in MAKE Magazine!"

What 3D printing has going for it is that it's a rich and excitable community, one where terms like "viscous" are common. When I was at the Protoplant booth, one of the founders of Ultimaker — another massive presence in the industry — stopped by to see what they were working on. He had heard a lot about the conductive Proto-Pasta. Shepherd reacted: "I read about you in MAKE Magazine!" They swapped cards, and he left with a free spool of carbon fiber Proto-Pasta.

Shepherd smiled. "Our stuff works great."