3D Printers: Almost Mainstream

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The bigger market, he says, will be the emergence of on-demand manufacturers that use industrial 3D printers or personal 3D printers that cost from $500 to $5,000. They will produce unique one-off or small-quantity items tailored to consumers or businesses that don't want bother with designing and printing items for themselves, Wohlers says.

Gartner predicts that the price for professional 3D printers that now sell for $15,000 will decline to about $2,500 by 2020 and will deliver better performance and more features. But ultimately, says Basiliere, "From the manufacturer's perspective it's not the sale price of the printer but the sale of the supplies that matters most." Average consumables costs for 3D printers range from $2.50 to $10 per cubic inch, according to Basiliere.

Small-business manufacturing

The emergence of low-cost 3D printing lowers the bar for some types of manufacturing. "Companies and individuals with design talent and business savvy can start a business and start manufacturing products," Wohlers says.

After seeing what a 3D printer could do, Ed Fries, the former vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, started up FigurePrints, which uses Z Corp.'s ZPrinter machines to create one-of-a kind models of personal avatars for World of Warcraft and Xbox Live game enthusiasts.

FigurePrints downloads the characters directly from each game site, and lets users pose them before placing an order. An artist then cleans up the object, smoothing away the series of polygons that describe the figure and adding a third dimension to some 2D elements of the image, such as a cape and hair.

Fries chose Z Corp.'s ZPrinter because it is the only 3D printer on the market that supports full-color printing. That is, it can print an object using multiple colors.

He considered more traditional manufacturing techniques, such as a resin-cast process designed for low-volume production. "But you can't hand paint to the resolution we get, which is 600 dpi," he says, and it cost more.

That's a key advantage of the full-color ink-jet printing approach, says Z Corp. CEO John Kawola. "Because we use ink jet heads you can print a bottle with all of the label graphics and text on it."

By using full-color printing, Z Corp.'s ZPrinter can fabricate a product bottle prototype complete with the label and text.
While plastic jet printers heat and extrude ABS plastic through an "extrusion head" that looks like a syringe or glue gun, Z Corp.'s ZPrinter builds a 3D object by spreading a thin layer of a powder and then using an ink-jet print head to selectively deposit a liquid that hardens it.

As the layers build up, the unused powder that surrounds the object serves as a support. Once the item is finished, it goes to a cleaning station where a technician uses compressed air to remove the powder residue. The composite material, which has a polymer component, isn't as strong as ABS plastic, so FigurePrints dips each in a glue solution that hardens the material.

Even using the hardener solution, the final product isn't nearly as strong as injection-molded ABS plastic. Initially some characters, which tended to have overdeveloped upper torsos but thin ankles, snapped off the base during shipment. So artists take some license with images, in some cases thickening ankles or extending a cape or weapon to the base to add support.

"The texture and appearance of the finished product is OK, but isn't to the standard of a plastic injection-molded action figure you would buy at the store," Fries admits.

The colors aren't as bright, and the finished product has a texture that Fries describes as somewhat "chalky." But it works fine for models that ship in a glass display case, and the price is right: It costs about $5 per cubic inch to print a figure, not including pre- and post-processing time.

3D printers compared

For the full chart, go here.

FigurePrints sells the characters for about $15 per cubic inch -- and users seem willing to pay. "A common request is for wedding cake toppers," Fries says. "Couples meet in the games and want their characters on top of the wedding cake."

Smith also likes the idea of using 3D printers for one-off or limited run manufacturing. "We can do small-scale production -- tens of units -- without spending the money on expensive injection-molding tools," he says. But the printer works slowly, producing up to about four runs a day. FigurePrints gets about two products per day from each of its printers.

"If you're trying to manufacture with these machines, throughput is everything," Wohlers says. Using 3D printers successfully in a manufacturing setting will require better automation of both pre-processing and post-processing steps.

This ABS plastic hand vacuum was printed on a Stratasys uPrint 3D printer using fuse deposition modeling, a process that involves heating a plastic filament until it liquefies and sending it through a special syringe-like print head that extrudes it.

Cobb says Stratasys expects to cut total pre- and post-processing time for a typical print job in half, from 5 hours today to about 2.5 hours within the next three years, and for prices to drop from today's $15,000 for its entry-level professional printer to between $7,000 and $10,000 in that same timeframe. "In three to five years you will have the same capabilities for under $5,000," he says.

In the personal printer space, says Lewis at 3D Systems, prices will drop even further. "In the next year or two you will see us go past the $1,000 mark. In two years we'll be close to $500," she says.

How much the market will grow as prices continue to drop, and whether a mass market will ever emerge, is an open question. But as easy-to-use 3D design tools get better, and as shared 3D object libraries gain in size and sophistication, businesses and consumers may come up with new applications for the technology that haven't yet been envisioned. "3D printing is where the semiconductor business was in the 1960s," Wohlers says. "We know it is going to be big but we don't know how big."

This story, "3D Printers: Almost Mainstream" was originally published by Computerworld.

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