Star Trek fans will remember the Replicator device that re-created pretty much anything the crew of the Starship Enterprise needed, in seconds and in full dimension. Although we have a long time before we reach the 25th century, today we see the beginnings of the replicator technology in 3D printing. It is already a $1.7 billion galaxy that is projected to expand to $3.7 billion by next year.
3D printing is not new – stereolithography, or solid imaging was invented and patented around 1987 by Chuck Hull; He then founded 3D Systems and is the company’s chief technology officer. Many advances have been made since, from materials used to printer sizes and capabilities, and the technology is becoming more mainstream. Aside from business applications, consumers and hobbyists can also invest in the software and printers (or upload their digital files to third-party services) and bring their interests to life in a whole new way.
3D in a nutshell
3D printing “called €additive manufacturing” by industrial users is rendered from a digital model created with computer-assisted design (CAD) or animation modeling software. The file (a cross-sectioned image) is uploaded to the printer, which transforms the virtual blueprint into the object. Layer by layer, the printer builds the object by passing over a platform where the material is transferred (sprayed, squeezed or by other conveyance) in thin sheets; it is then fused together to make the final product. The materials used are rubber, plastics, paper, metals, and polyurethane-like materials.
3D makes it fast and for less
Barring the expense of the 3D printers (more on those later), companies can use this technology for rapid prototyping, creating models and product prototypes in a few days as opposed to outsourcing the work and waiting a few weeks. Traditional supply chains and production methods will eventually be transformed, at least for certain industries, as mold making and other production tooling is undertaken on site by the manufacturers and designers.
By circumventing the old prototype process, users have greater control over their projects.
As noted above, additive manufacturing has tremendous potential in manufacturing, to create rapid prototypes that enable corporations to test and improve their product design (and bring finished inventory to market more quickly).
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, aerospace and automotive industries have been using 3D printing for at least 25 years. In fact, as reported in PC World in October 2013, Boeing is making small parts for some of its planes via additive manufacturing, such as air duct components and wiring covers, and also uses the technology with metal to produce prototype parts for a variety of tests. Boeing hopes to scale up its processes in order to build larger, structural components for military and commercial aircraft. As equipment gets bigger to handle large titanium structures, there’s no telling where this technology will lead. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been using additive manufacturing to test new concept parts for spacecrafts.
Auto makers can produce prototypes of all sorts of auto parts and concept car components with relative ease and greater control; they are able to tweak the models, easily create one-off production pieces, adjust the specifications, and create models with much faster turnaround time.
In some cases, for small-scale manufacturers, the printers can also be used to make the final product but this would be for low-volume work.
3D in health care
3D printing has already been put to work in medical and dental labs to fabricate:
- Prosthetic devices, casts and braces.
- Hearing aids (ear molds and device shells)
- Lab instruments
- Titanium body parts
- Certain dental appliances (crowns, bridges, temporaries – are teeth next?)
By printing replicas of body parts, surgeons are able to do a dry run of complex surgical procedures on joints, bones or organs, thereby reducing the time the patient is under anesthesia as well as perfecting their technique. This results in better patient outcomes.
Creative agencies, designers and builders
Ad agencies and marketing firms can have a lot of fun with this technology. Imagine being able to create and print:
- Product prototypes and models for focus groups or sales demonstrations
- Three-dimensional, custom promotional materials as giveaways or premiums
- Dimensional client gifts
- Automated animatronics displays
- Toys, figurines and dolls
- Plastic bottles, packaging
- Android robots for live automated sales pitches
Applications of the technology are seen in other creative fields. Jewelers can create molds or design concepts, sculptors can develop templates or previews of their artistic visions, and architects and builders can create 3D models of their projects in a fraction of the time it typically takes, with great precision. Large-format (very large) concrete printers can create large-scale structural and architectural components. For those who work with food, there are now printers that can print in cheese or chocolate. Home hobbyists are designing and printing their own toys, models and household objects.
The big cost in 3D printing is the printer. Commercial/industrial printers can cost upwards of $1 million but the average price is about $75,000, depending on size and capacity. For consumers, prices ranges between $1500 and $3000; some models are available for just under $1000. This is still a high-priced piece of equipment for many small businesses and consumers. Since this is all still relatively new for many companies, do your research or hire an IT expert who has the experience or knowledge to advise you on the best 3D printer (and software) for your needs.
If this is not in your budget, there are affordable third-party online 3D printing services simply upload your file and specifications and your item will be rendered and shipped to you. There is even an open source 3D printing community (Fab@Home) that will handle your project.
Are you using 3D printing for your business? If so, let us hear about what you are creating and how at IND Corp. If you’re thinking about introducing 3D printing, let’s discuss your options.
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