The industry is developing fast. It is providing new creative opportunities for individuals and revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. It’s 3D printing! Many people have heard of the 3D printed organs for medical testing; it is true, it is happening. There are many developments in this industry that are perhaps not so glamorous, but still encourage us to wonder what other possibilities 3D printing presents. For example, Sols Systems has developed software that scans feet and generates digital files of custom shoe inserts. The file is then uploaded to a 3D printer and created in less than 24 hours. Once the physical shoe insert has taken form, it is sent directly to the customer. If the technology is implemented into our society in a way that promotes local manufacturing transportation costs and fuel emissions can be reduced. Evidence that supports a manufacturing revolution lead by 3D printing is apparent. The technology also promotes personal innovation, which is an idea that draws many people to the industry.
As 3D Printing Specialist at Shapeways, I was lucky to see custom creations by individuals from around the world. Expression through apparel and jewelry is not limited by what is mass manufactured and distributed. Shapeways’ customers are creating unique jewelry, iPhone cases, and more. Some customers use Shapeways’ services for product development and prototyping. One such product is the ModiBot, a customizable action figure that is simple yet fun. The company also produces bracelets with custom messages printed on them. Shapeways’ goal is to give the world access to 3D printing without having to invest in a printer. Other companies in the industry are striving to put a 3D printer in every home.
MakerBot opened the first “brick and mortar” retail store for desktop 3D printers in New York City. Since MakerBot only sells their brand of printer, iMakr saw an opportunity to open a retail location that sells a variety of brands. These companies are in the right place to test the market for these printers. Their success over the next few years will answer a lot of questions about the market for personal 3D printers. The number of 3D printers currently in peoples’ homes is surprising. 3Dhubs.com connects people 3D files to people in their area with 3D printers. The company sutures the transaction of the file for the print and any monetary exchange. 3Dhubs provides a great opportunity for owners of 3D printers to get a return on their investment. These at-home-manufactures will soon be able to maximize their production with the help of PrintToPeer. PrintToPeer is developing a web-based program that allows users to control their printers over the Internet. It is clear that 3D printers have created more opportunities for local manufacturing. However, the current material costs and production limitations make local manufacturing less than optimal. There are 3D printers in many homes, but predictions that it will become as common as a refrigerator are not yet coming to fruition.
Some people who are unfamiliar with 3D printing find the subject challenging to discuss. I’ve found that people who have never heard of 3D printing have more trouble understanding the manufacturing process than the benefits of at-home or local manufacturing; it’s been hard to get past that part of the conversation before talking about having a 3D printer in your home. The social disconnect seems to relate to a lack of understanding manufacturing in general. I spoke with one gentleman who is familiar with CNC manufacturing and he understood 3D printing within seconds. The two types of manufacturing share a lot of the same concepts; the major difference is that CNC machines practice subtractive and 3D printing is additive manufacturing in most cases. “3D printing” is really at catch phrase that makes people wonder if they need one next to their paper printer. However, the phrase detracts from people’s understanding because they try to relate their paper printer to a 3D printer. The two devices are in different dimensions. The previous statement is not actually true, but I couldn’t help myself. My point is, no one says they manufactured a document. The only similarity between the two types of printers is the extruder, but mechanically they operate differently and not all 3D printers have extruders. The more accurate name for 3D printing is Additive Manufacturing, but the phrase “additive manufacturing device” just isn’t as sexy (or consumer friendly) as 3D printer. After seeing many different 3D printers operate, from thousand-dollar desktop printers to million-dollar industrial printers, I realize the mechanics of 3D printing is not that complicated and far less impressive than the software that runs each build. This manufacturing process is far from incomprehensible. There are some social barriers to overcome and general manufacturing education that needs to take place before this industry breaks into the mainstream.
3D printing is cool, but the technology has a long way to go before desktop 3D printers an adopted as a common household item. There are material limitations that affect the functionality, strength and quality of products. In order to produce a flawless item, operators have to understand how to properly orient the item being built. Since the technology is so new, troubleshooting is very common. MakerBot is striving to create the “out of the box” experience that consumers love. They do have very limited assembly. However according to sources, calibrating the machine can be a hassle and extruder clogging is fairly common.
Though it may be many years away, a future where 3D printers are in every home is fun to think about. Instead of buying a physical product, consumers would buy a digital file then manufacture it at home. Amazon has revolutionized consumer spending by making it an at-home experience; it is realistic to think the manufacturing process can become an at-home experience as well. Imagine breaking the knob on your facet just before you leave the house for work. What if during your lunch break you could buy the replacement knob, in the form of an .stl file? What if you could then upload the .stl file to your home 3D printer via the web? The knob would be waiting for you when you got home. There would be no need to think about running to the hardware store after work. You would not have to interrupt your relaxing Saturday. This is a modest fantasy that is achievable with today’s technology. I am not so certain that enough of these scenarios exist to create a demand for a 3D printer in every home. Many industry experts are confident the technology will continuously develop and revolutionize manufacturing; exactly how is to be determined.