Who Needs a Factory When You Have a Printer?

Digital fabrication holds huge promise for manufacturers.
John EdwardsJune 15, 2001

Printing has developed a third dimension, a dimension not of height or width but of depth. Next stop: no, not the Twilight Zone, but a 3D printer that creates spare parts, architectural and medical models, toys — even electronic components — with the touch of a button.

Also known as desktop fabrication, 3D printing is already being used by a number of engineering and manufacturing companies to create detailed prototypes. But technology forecasters say that these remarkable machines may one day be standard office equipment. ”The technology will make creating tangible objects as easy as sending a document to a laser printer,” says Geoff Smith-Moritz, editor of the monthly Rapid Prototyping Report.

While conventional printers deposit a single layer of ink onto a sheet of paper, 3D systems create multiple layers of materials (resins, metals, plastics, cornstarch, and the like) one after another, until a complete, solid object has been formed. Users who connect a 3D printer to a computer running design software can create a physical representation of virtually anything imaginable.

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Currently, more than 20 vendors, including 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Z Corp., offer 3D printers. ”The technology spans many different industries and applications,” says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a product design and manufacturing consulting company. ”It’s being used for automotive materials and consumer products and even medicine.”

Indeed, a variety of organizations are attempting to push 3D printer technology to the next level. The US Army, for example, plans to install 3D printers in trucks so drivers can create on-the-spot replacement parts. Z Corp. is marketing its systems to engineering firms in all sorts of industries-even to hospitals. ”Reproductions of patients’ heads and bones can help guide surgeons before and during operations,” says Marina Hatsopoulos, the company’s CEO. And one arm of the Pentagon, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is developing the means to print electronic components directly onto housings.

For corporations, 3D printing offers endless — and staggering — possibilities. ”Real estate agents could offer shoppers scale models of actual homes,” says Smith-Moritz, ”and shoe companies could create custom-formed footwear.” 3D printing also has serious implications for just-in-time manufacturing. Notes Smith-Moritz: ”Service companies wouldn’t have to maintain extensive parts inventories.”, an online toymaker, is already using fabrication technology to create personalized action figures based on photos supplied by customers. Smith-Moritz expects downloadable toys to take off as soon as these printers become affordable for consumers.

That may take some time. Currently, 3D printers cost anywhere from $50,000 to $800,000 — slightly more than your average Bubble Jet. But Wohlers notes that 3D printers may well follow the migration path of photocopiers — starting in copy centers, then moving to corporate offices. He also expects that prices will drop dramatically during the next several years as sales volume picks up, and as manufacturers learn to build printers more efficiently.

Several vendors are already working on lower-cost 3D printers. Buss Modeling Technology, for one, is looking to eventually make 3D object-building as inexpensive and easy as printing a book report. The German company has based its 3D Colourprinter on a standard Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer chassis. ”It’s a nice little machine,” says Wohlers. ”You look at this 3D printer, and there’s not a whole lot more to it than an inkjet.”