The 3D printer movement of recent years has been an outpouring of relatively lower end technology that had been available to the industry for decades. 3D printers have been around since the late 1980s but had been available only to large companies requiring specialized design and prototyping tools. Additionally, the intellectual property rights behind 3D printing technology was confined in a few large 3D printing companies. Lately, the market has expanded exponentially. This article will provide an overview of some of the larger 3D printing companies and a quick overview of a few notable newer companies.
Before talking about some of the popular 3D printer companies you might actually buy something from, it is necessary to give a quick introduction to two of the larger 3D printing companies; 3D Systems and Stratasys. These two companies are very established in the 3D printing industry, but if you are a hobbyist or maker, you may not have even heard of them. These companies have been at the forefront of many of the 3D printing innovations, but have not offered printers that were available to mass market consumers until very recently.
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3D Systems is a company that introduced 3D printers that worked with Stereolighography (SLA) 1989, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) in 1992, and 3D powder based printers in 1994. 3D Systems acquired Z Corp in 2012, a company that was also involved in the first commercialized 3D powder based printers in the early 90s.
Although 3D Systems historically provided larger scale 3D printers, in 2012 they introduced their first printer that priced for a typical consumer, the “Cube”. The Cube 3 is the current model available for consumers. It is moderately priced and has the general performance expected from a 3D printer. However, beware, 3D Systems extends it's closed nature of it's company to it's Cube printers. These printers do not have open software or hardware. They are known for lack of usability, capability, and performance. If you are looking for a more friendly model, keep reading.
Stratasys is the other large player in the 3D printing industry. Stratasys developed and patented the thermoplastic-based Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) that was awarded in 1992 that forms the basis of most consumer desktop printers. Stratasys has been heavily involved in reasearch and development throughout the 1990's and 2000's. They have been a large player in commercial 3D printing but have historically provided consumer-sized machines. They took a change in their business model in 2013, when they purchased the popular 3D printing company, Makerbot.
Stratasys has held the patents for FDM modeling. These patents have mostly expired as of 2012. This has lead to the exponential increase in 3D printing companies, and decrease in costs. The cost of 3D printers today makes them available to nearly all consumers.
Although the companies we talked about already were interesting, unless you belong to an R&D department, 3D printers they made were not something to really care about. However, todays consumer-level 3D printers are easily obtained and used. The start of the consumer 3D printing movement was started by the RepRap Project. Adrian Bowyer from Bath University, UK, created the RepRap project in 2008. The RepRap project was the idea of an open source printer, whose plastic parts can be printed to assemble more RepRap 3D printers. The RepRap first started duplicating itself in 2008, and is still duplicating and making more RepRaps today (read further here).
RepRap machines break the mold of IP-heavy history of 3D printing and bring 3D printers to the masses. RepRap printers are true DIY machines with Kits available online for a very reasonable price that will fit most budgets. There is a great support network from RepRap suppliers and the community. Countless models and varieties are available, but some of the most popular ones are Mendelmax and the Prusa i3.
Makerbot, is a wildly popular consumer-level 3D printing company was inspired by the RepRap project. Makerbot’s founders, Adam Mayer, Zach Smith and Bre Pettis created the company and began production of kits in early 2009. Interestingly, the inventor of the RepRap project, Adrian Boyer, helped fund Makerbot in its initial years (read further here).
Makerbot started its 3D printing history by selling kits, but has recently switched to providing fully assembled, and highly sophisticated desktop models. As stated earlier, Makerbot is now a branch of the 3D printing giant, Stratasys, and is Stratasys's only consumer-level product. Makerbot’s most popular models are the Replicator and Replicator mini. Makerbot printers are slightly more expensive than comparable companies for the build volume, but provides all the bells and whistles with features such as a fully enclosed build volume, app connectivity, and integrated cameras.
Ultimaker, is another popular 3D printing company that followed the steps of Makerbot and RepRap. Ultimaker is a Dutch company that was founded in 2011 by Martijn Elserman, Erik de Bruijn, and Siert Wijnia and started out manufacturing kits of their own design in a plywood housing. Ultimaker is unique in that it has a free and open-source 3D printing software, Cura 3D. Now, the company produces upgraded fully assembled 3D printing machines, and is a major powerhouse in the consumer 3D perinter market. Popular Ultimaker models are the Ultimaker Original and Ultimaker 2 Go.
Printrbot is a California based 3D printing company that is known for affordability and value. This company was founded by Brook Drumm in 2011 through Kickstarter. This idea started out as a garage side project and is now a full company which is very popular for makers and 3D printing enthusiasts who wish to build their own machines. Printerbot printers are known to have many upgradeable features and are nearly half the price of comparable sized printer of similar companies. Printer options available from Printerbot are Play (4”x4”x5”), Simple (6”x6”x6”), and Plus (10”x10”x10”) .
Formlabs is a Massachusetts-based 3D printing company that also started on Kickstarter. After receiving almost $3 million, Formlabs started shipping their first model the Form 1, in early 2013. Formlabs printers are very unique in that they were the first popular consumer-grade 3D printers to use sterolithography (SLA). This printer uses UV light to cure a liquid resin with use a special resin, allowing the printer to create solid objects of incredible quality. Venturing into the field of consumer SLA printers has not been without challenges.
Formlabs was sued by 3D systems for using technology that it claimed was owned by 3D systems and was forced into paying 3D systems a royalty for all sales . A downside to SLA printers is that UV-curable resins are generally much more expensive than filament. However, if you want to splurge, this printer will produce some of the best quality prints that can be made on consumer level printers. The Form2 is the current model available.
The above is just a mere sampling of the dozens of 3D printing companies that are currently established. Each month brings additional 3D printing innovations as patents expire, and countless opportunities for new companies to be hatched by driven individuals with a goal of making better 3D printers.