3D printing heads toward mass production

Your smartphone could soon be built using Lego-like, 3D-printed electronic parts

NEW YORK -- Far from starting the next industrial revolution, the founder of the first 3D printer company believes the technology will usher in an era of customization where economies of scale do not exist.

"For the first time, you can say for the price of one unit, I can also print millions of units - the price doesn't change," said Avid Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems. "I see even bigger opportunities today for making millions of identical parts with the greatest degree of freedom and complexity, which could not be manufactured in any traditional methods."

Wearing a pair of 3D-printed sunglasses and shoes, Reichental waxed poetic at the Inside 3D Printing Conference here about how one day every factory and home will have 3D printers capable of replacing broken parts and creating one-of-a-kind products.

The same 3D printing technology that allows GE to cut 40% on design costs by using CAD software and 3D printers to make prototypes will also allow a startup such as Planetary Resources build a space probe for under $2 million. Planetary Resources' probe, scheduled to launch later this year, will weight only 20 pounds and have just 20 moving parts. Planetary Resources' objective is to discover and mine asteroids within the solar system.

3D Systems is also developing printers that can keep up with production lines.

Reichental described it as "the creation of the next generation of continuous, high-speed 3D printing, the kind that's capable of making tens of thousands of functional parts per day."

The first of the high-speed printing projects 3D Systems is working on involves a partnership with Google to 3D print modular smartphones that can be changed or upgraded by unplugging and plugging in new Lego-like electronic parts.

Google's Project Ara, as it's called, will create a line of highly-customizable, modular smartphones that offers consumers both functional and aesthetic choices on their device.

3D phones
Google's Motorola division is building module smartphones with interchangeable parts that can be used to customize functionality and aesthetics.

3D Systems is also getting its feet wet in the medical equipment market, because CAD software allows physicians to tailor surgical instruments to their patients' needs.

For example, 3D Systems yesterday announced that it acquired Medical Modeling Inc., a provider of personalized surgical treatments and patient-specific medical devices, including virtual surgical planning and clinical transfer tools.

Medical Modeling offers Virtual Surgical Planning, a service-based approach to personalized surgery that combines medical imaging, surgical simulation and 3D printing. It allows physicians to download the most up-to-date surgical toolbox and manipulate the designs based on a patient's needs for challenging head and neck surgical procedures.

3D shoes
Avid Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, wears 3D printed shoes.

NASA is also using 3D desktop printers from MakerBot for rapid prototying of rocket and rover parts. Parts of the rover Curiousity, currently exploring the surface of Mars, were prototyped on a 3D printer, according to Gabriel Rangel, associate CTO of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

In the future, Rangel said the Internet and 3D printing will allow students and other amateur astronomers to print out NASA equipment to learn more about the technology and perhaps help it evolve through crowdsourcing ideas.

For example, NASA offers an augmented reality app that allows users to view 17 different spacecraft models in extreme detail. Eventually, NASA hopes to allow users to download the designs and print them out for educational purposes.

Rangel also said "the next generation of rovers will be equipped with 3D scanners," enabling the creation of virtual reality images that can be printed back on Earth in order to "bring the solar system to us."

Once a probe lands on Mars or, for example, a moon of Saturn, it could scan an object on the surface and transmit the image back to NASA. The agency could then print out a solid replica.

Computerworld's Lucas Mearian shows off the latest in the world of 3D printing, as seen at the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York.

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