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Desktop 3-D printing set to explode, says MakerBot CEO

Keynote at Inside 3D Printing conference nonetheless met with some skepticism and reliability complaints.

NEW YORK -- The near future will see an explosion in 3-D printing, said Jonathan Jaglom at the Inside 3D Printing Conference on Thursday. The claim met with some skepticism, however.

Jaglom, newly installed CEO of MakerBot, a producer of desktop 3-D printing systems, made the prediction in a keynote address at the conference. "3-D desktop printing is about empowering creators," he said, "The revolution is here right now -- it's going from bits to atoms." The computer allows creators to design, and now the 3-D desktop printer allows them to bring those creations to solid form.

Businesses can use this to their advantage in a variety of ways, Jaglom explained. For example, GE has a unit called GE First Build, an internal engineering hub that uses desktop 3-D printing to take products from concept to design, to manufacturing, and even to direct sales. This means that GE can bring certain products to market in half the time of the normal production cycle. It can also get products directly into the hands of customers, where they can give feedback and changes can be made.

A wide range of companies use MakerBot's 3-D desktop printers, from Martha Stewart Living consumer products to The Feinstein Institute, which does medical research. "Companies are using it in ways that we never thought of," Jaglom said.

MakerBot is making a big push to put the technology in the hands of young people and has placed more than 5,000 3-D printers in schools across the country.

"The future workforce of this country is already embracing this; they are heading to the workplace with this already in hand," Jaglom said. "Companies and employers have to embrace this reality."

Jaglom predicted there will be a 3-D printer in every home 12 to 15 years from now -- possibly as soon as five to 10 years -- although there will likely be two separate spaces for 3-D printing. "Home printers will probably be limited in what they can do," he said. "For example, you might break a part in some household item. You can go to the online catalog, find the part, then send the file to your 3-D printer. But there may be parts that you can't print at home due to materials, for example, and these you can send to a professional printing entity."

The biggest challenge the industry faces is getting people to understand the true value of 3-D printing, according to Jaglom. Many people still don't understand the market, and companies need to put significant resources into marketing and education. Many of them have had limited budgets to accomplish this, but it is changing, he said.

Buyer cites MakerBot Replicator Z18 problems

Alexander Leszczynski of ABB, Inc., a developer of power and automation technologies, threw a little cold water on Jaglom's forecast, pointing to some challenges the industry faces other than marketing. While questioning Jaglom, Leszczynski claimed that his company purchased one of MakerBot's high-end Replicator Z18 desktop printers, intending to use it to print small threaded plumbing components for power systems in its Raleigh, N.C. facility. The device cost about $10,000 with a three-year service contract, but after numerous and repeated problems with the vital extruder component on the printer that ABB could not resolve, it returned the printer for a partial refund. Leszczynski contends that the extruder is woefully inadequate for such an expensive and otherwise high-end product.

Jaglom acknowledged the problems but said that newer releases of the machine have fixed them.

Jim Bartlett, an attendee who follows 3-D printing closely, said he is not sure such problems represent a market trend, but they are concerning. He contended that it is well-known that the Replicator Z18 had problems with its extruder, but other Replicator printers continue to work well. Bartlett was somewhat sanguine about Jaglom's prediction of a future filled with 3-D printers. It will come about, he said, but it is hard to say to what degree.

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