3D printers: Almost mainstream

Creating three-dimensional objects on a printer is still complicated, but it's getting easier.

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Another issue is that some objects need to have supports added so they don't collapse or sag before the materials fully harden. If an object needs to be supported during the printing process, the pre-processing driver software that comes with the 3D printer makes that determination and automatically adds any needed structural supports to the design.

3D figure
Before printing this figure, an artist cleaned up the image, and extended the weapon and cape to the base on which the figure stands to provide additional support. When a figure first comes out of the printer, it is quite fragile, so support material must be removed carefully to avoid breaking off fine details such as fingertips.

The support material is usually different from the build material, and must be removed during a post-processing step that typically involves blowing off, breaking off, dissolving, melting or cutting away the unwanted material.

Price is right

Declining prices, improved quality and easier-to-use software are opening up demand for 3D printers. Commercial models -- capable of cranking out industrial manufacturing prototypes -- that once cost $100,000 now start at about $15,000, while personal 3D printers for the hobbyist and education market sell for less than $1,500.

"It used to be a six- or seven-figure cost," says Gartner's Basiliere.

Among industrial offerings, higher-end models add features such as the ability to print colors (although most can only print one color at a time), to run jobs faster, to print thinner layers for finer detail and to offer a larger printable area for creating larger objects.

For industrial designers doing prototyping, even an entry-level 3D printer is faster than going to a service bureau, and operating costs can come in as low as one-tenth of service bureau rates. The prices of 3D printers are now low enough to justify in departmental budgets, says Gartner's Basiliere.

Manufacturers, such as automakers, have traditionally used 3D printers in a lab or as part of a separate internal "service bureau," says Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates Inc., which tracks the 3D printing market. Now they are showing up in corporate offices, where they sit on the network like any other networked printer. "Because they're more affordable, now they're spread all across General Motors and Chrysler," he says.

Other industries use the technology, too. Ben White uses a 3D printer from Z Corp. to produce prototypes of window curtain poles, tracks, blinds and other hardware for Integra Products Ltd. "It's more economical to lease a printer than it is to keep sending products out for fabrication," says White, senior product design engineer. "We're at 10% to 15% of the cost of the service bureau," he says, and the turnaround is faster and the models are more accurately rendered to the original design specifications. After six months, the company is using the printer to produce 95% of its prototypes.

HP DesignJet 3D printer
Hewlett-Packard's DesignJet 3D printer is available only in Europe.

Others report similar savings. By using an HP DesignJet for rapid prototyping, Tintometer Ltd. sped up its product development times by 40% to 60%, says industrial designer Amy Penn. And the company, which manufactures industrial instruments that measure color, also uses the 3D printer to build finished products.

The DesignJet builds testing jigs that calibrate components before they're inserted into the final instrument during the manufacturing process. The parts more precisely meet the original specifications compared to what Tintometer was able to get from a service bureau, and are just as sturdy and a lot cheaper, says Penn. The 3D printer also made it cost-effective to print concept parts that sales people can show to customers. "The ROI was about six months," she says.

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