3-D printing: The next big thing?

Imagine 'printing' your own 3-D toys or models

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3

Tolerances for high-end RP machine are usually 0.1% or 0.2%, said John Kawola, vice president at Z Corp. in Burlington, Mass.

With low-end 3-D printers, tolerances are rarely less than 0.5%. "But with, say, an engine block, you don't care about the tolerances except for the holes, and you machine-finish those anyway," Kawola said. "3-D printing probably satisfies 70% to 90% of what people want to do with a prototype." Consequently, sales of 3-D printers have been growing by 30% to 40% yearly for several years and now amount to 80% of the whole RP market, Kawola said.

"It speeds up the design process by at least a factor of four," estimated 3-D printing user William Effrece, lab manager at The Stanley Works tool factory in New Britain, Conn. "Previously, making a prototype was something done only at the end of the design process, it cost $3,000, and you had to wait two or three weeks. Now it can be done in a day, and the only expense is the cost of the materials. Our machine paid for itself in three months." He uses a 3-D printer from Z Corp., whose powder-deposition model-building technology allows for photorealistic models.

Make your own toys

But wouldn't customers of companies such as FigurePrints be happier if they were able to print their figurines at home -- as well as appliance replacement parts, toys, ornaments, kitchenware, etc?

One company hoping to meet this potential demand is Desktop Factory Inc. in Pasadena, Calif. It's taking advance orders for a $4,995 system to be delivered sometime later this year.

"I see the low-cost availability of 3-D printing as having major implications," said Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory. She anticipates the system being popular with schools and hopes it will promote the education of a new generation of U.S. engineers.

"But the long-term vision is rapid manufacturing in the home," Lewis said. "You have the ability to create one-off products and customized toys. Instead of importing items by millions from China, transporting them to warehouses and then stores, where we drive to pick them up, you will download a legal file, for a legal fee, and print your own repair part. Our parts are durable enough to serve as end-user items."

A 3-D printer costing less than $5,000 is under development at Desktop Factory, shown here with output samples.

She anticipates that the "cost of goods" to create a Desktop Factory unit will fall to $500 by late 2011. "So in 2012, I should be able to sell it for $1,000," she said. But she also wants to see more low-end software tools become available. She and others pointed to Google Inc.'s SketchUp 3-D design package, available as a free download, as an example of what would be needed. Lewis said that the Desktop Factory unit may eventually have an interface for SketchUp files. (Professional 3-D CAD tools can cost thousands of dollars.)

As for the Desktop Factory system, which involves plastic and metal powder heated with a halogen light, "in terms of accuracy, they have some work to do," said Michael Berman, chief technology officer at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3
It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon