New 3D Printer Set to Reshape Market
By Brad Frischkorn
Still in its infancy, 3D printers are fast beginning to look like some of the artwork they produce. For newbie 3D printer company Apparatus, it could be the wave of the future.
Simplicity and elegance perhaps best define Apparatus' new Arc desktop machine, which looks a bit like a triangular ice chest without the sides, and definitely unlike any other 3D printer. Company co-founder and engineer Jon Buford brought a pre-production model to the Global Sources Electronics Show held in Hong Kong in mid-April.
"We started with end-use considerations--what problems users have, what inconveniences they face, and what are the core features that they really use," Mr. Buford says.
The end result was a 150mm, 2kg device that seems a good deal smaller and lighter than conventional 3D printers of comparable output. The Arc also features a full servo motor control feedback system that can 'sense' when problems arise, such as if the filament is not in place, if an object is blocking the production mechanism, or if the user forgets to install the print surface.
"Calibration, such as getting the printer bed at the right height and level, has been one of the 'black arts' of the industry for a long time, and takes practice to master," he says. "We hope to eliminate that and thereby make the machine much easier to use."
The Arc's design also allows for a longer than average printing bed, and can operate on laptop computer-level power, affording a measure of portability if absolutely necessary. Its compact size and weight means easy storage, while the semi-open source operating system should allow for a measure of customization.
The trend lines for the 3D printer industry are indeed bullish. Wohlers Associates estimates that the global industry grew to over $5 billion in 2015, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 26%. In 2014, the industry grew 34.9%, its highest rate in 17 years.
Sales of industrial-use 3D printers have been soaring, but desktop 3D printer growth also remains strong, with nearly 300,000 machines sold since the start of 2015.
"While not quite yet resonating with general consumers, desktop 3D printers remain an important gateway technology for the evolution of the 3D printing industry," says Chris Connery, VP for global analysis at market research company CONTEXT. "Today's young engineers, students, and hobbyists need to become exposed to the concepts necessary to allow them to properly design products for an additive manufacturing environment and low cost, entry level personal 3D printers allow for this learning to take place more rapidly."
Apparatus is targeting professionals and educators as its primary customer base. The Arc is in its final design stage, with mass production slated for July. The company is busy lining up its first buyers now and will sell directly to most areas of the world. For Japan, however, the firm is looking for a local partner while contemplating crowd funding possibilities.
"With all its technological capabilities, we think Japan will be huge market," says Mr. Buford, who is a veteran tech entrepreneur, and has helped to co-found other ventures such as BootHK, Hardware Massive, and StartupsHK. A U.S. expat, he has been living in Hong Kong for the last 12 years.
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