For the story of digital fabrication in 2013, it hasn't just been the rise of the machines; we've also seen developments in materials, processes and business.
For starters, Belgian digital fabrication company Materialise released TPU 92A-1, a new material for laser sintering. Durable yet elastic, the new stuff is a counterintuitive blend of flexible, durable, abrasion- and tear-resistant, and when sintered into a matrix-like form, has impressive shape memory. A certain fashion designer has taken to the material with a vengeance, but we'll get around to actual applications in the next entry.
Shapeways' Brass and Gold
On a more conventional front, Materialise competitor Shapeways brings two classic elements into their materials stable: gold and brass, now available through a combination of 3D printing, casting and old-fashioned hand polishing (and electroplating, in the case of gold). And unlike TPU 92A-1, which seems to be available only to industrial customers, anyone using Shapeways' services can order the stuff.
LAYWOO-D3 Wooden 3D Printing Filament
From Germany came LAYWOO-D3, a 3D-printing filament made from 40% recycled wood bound together by polymer. Advertised as "cherry," the stuff reportedly looks like wood, smells like wood, and can be sanded, worked and painted like wood once it's out of the printer.
Modern Meadow 3D Printed Meat
A material for 3D printing that none of you may be clamoring for is... meat. Andras Forgacs and his Modern Meadow company are seeking to produce meat-based protein for human consumption by bioengineering the stuff and having it spit out of a printer; for the sake of—I dunno, authenticity?—they'll reportedly keep the meat animal-specific, "Pig stays pig. Cow stays cow. Etc." to "ensure purity." Mmmmmmm. [retch]
GE's Cold Spray Metal Restoration
General Electric, meanwhile, released word of a process they're experimeting with that's less 3D printing and more 3D painting. The GE Research Center's Coating and Surface Technologies Lab's "cold spray" technology aims to restore used, worn metal parts by spraying them with metal powder in some proprietary, magical way. While this technology will likely never trickle down to the consumer sector, it's being hailed as "a potential 'fountain of youth' for metal."
Ford's Freeform Fabrication Technology
Perhaps the coolest digital fabrication technology we saw all year was Ford's Freeform Fabrication Technology, which they're calling F3T. By suspending sheet metal in space, then manipulating it from above and below with twin robot fingers, they are able to create impressively complicated shapes, the likes of which could previously only be produced via stamping. It's a gamechanger for those who prototype in sheet metal.
Autodesk CAM 360
On the software front, earlier this month Autodesk announced their CAM 360 software, which brings CNC toolpathing into their suite of cloud-based products. With this addition to their already-existing design, analysis, rendering and PLM applications, they've become the first software company to achieve a complete, Apple-like ecosystem of cloud-based products for designers and manufacturers.
U.S. Army Backs 4D Printing
On the business front, we were interested to see that the U.S. Army's research office granted $855,000 towards the exploration of 4D printing, which is to say, 3D-printed objects that change their form over time; admittedly it will likely be years before we see the fruits of that seed money, if we're allowed to see them at all.
Stratasys Acquires Makerbot
On the civilian business front, this year's big digital fabrication news was that industry giants Stratasys and Objet, hot on the heels of their merger, snapped up Makerbot for some $400 million. With the ability to now reach three tiers of the 3D-printing market, Stratasys has clearly become the company to watch in the 3D printing space.
Is 3D Printing Bad For You?
Also this year, an alarmist study on the negative health effects of 3D printing made the press rounds, citing the harmful nature of inhaling the fumes giving off by FDM; however, we looked into it more closely and discovered that 3D printing is about as bad for you as using that electric frying pan pictured above.
Buyer's Guide for 3D Printers
With both that health scare and this year's gift-giving season out of the way, perhaps more of you will be looking into buying 3D printers for yourself. If so, you'll probably want to consult the excellent database of 120 different 3D printers compiled by 3Ders.org; it was a big hit with readers, as it breaks down each machine's price, stats and capabilities.