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3D Printing Comes of Age, Part 1

December 3, 2012


I have written several articles on the impact that 3D printing (sometimes called additive manufacturing) will have on the future of manufacturing and retailing. Occasionally, a writer says 3D printing is the “next big thing.” Often discussions about the “next big thing” amount to little more than hyperbole; but, based on the number of articles being written about it, additive manufacturing appears to be the real deal. Douglas Alexander, Principal Consultant at Component Engineering Consultants, writes, “Technology is moving forward so rapidly that if you blink once, you will miss some significant advances.” [“Wonder Alert: 3D Printing,” EBN, 16 August 2012] He continues:

“I am amazed at the products coming via convergence. As each new product is introduced, the supply chain takes on new characteristics in the form of supporting and aftermarket opportunities. Of particular note are the 3D printing technologies involving DIY (do-it-yourself) equipment, software, and supplies. For those of you not familiar with this technology, let me put you in the time machine and take you back to the first Xerox Corp. copiers. Which of us did not at some point say to a fellow employee that someday there will be copiers that will copy or create objects like the Star Trek replicators? We’re already working on the virtual reality research that will make the holodeck a reality. In fact, using 3D printing, based upon mostly plastic type materials, objects can be made from computer-aided design (CAD) programs quite easily. By strengthening these plastics with composite type formulations, the resultant product can be much more than just a model, but can be sufficiently durable to be put into everyday practical use. Products could include plastic replacement parts for home appliances, furniture, and as I witnessed recently, hand tools that could take the full torque and pressure stress encountered by metal equipment. Add to this working part intermeshing gears, rotating cams, rods, and wheels, and there is no limit to the number of practical, usable, and inexpensive products that will one day be sold in a retail store near you.”

Alexander focuses on 3D printing processes that use “plastic type materials” but other materials are also being used and the spectrum of things that can be manufactured on printers is expanding. A firm in the United Kingdom is printing aircraft parts using a titanium-based feedstock. A research group at the University of California, San Diego, “has demonstrated the ability to print three-dimensional blood vessels in seconds” using biocompatible hydrogels. [“New technique paves the way for instant 3D-printed biological tissues,” by Doug Hendrie, Gizmag, 17 September 2012] Inventor Kai Parthy has invented a feedstock called “LAYWOO-D3, … made up of 40 percent recycled wood fiber, combined with a polymer binder” that can be used to print objects that “won’t warp, and can be painted, ground or cut like wood.” [“LAYWOO-D3 allows for 3D printing of (sort of) wooden objects,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 27 September 2012] The point is that the number of products that can now be usefully produced in most industry sectors using additive manufacturing is growing. Alexander writes:

“The most incredible advantage is that all the moving and intermeshing parts can be made with a single setup and at a single printing. No more costly casting or mold creations and subsequent modifications. Now all we need to do is tweak a software program to get things just right … the first time. That fact alone is huge. Many CAD programs have multiple part assembly simulations that will look for motion and fit interference and stress points before a product is made. Now imagine downloading all the 3D printer supplies material characteristics into the CAD library, and soon the engineer will be able to examine the 3D-printed part or assembly behavior under programmed stress simulations. There will be no guesswork before creating a prototype, and the material cost and setup time will be minimized. I can hear the supply chain rattling with this new innovation. Soon we should see appliances and other consumer product manufacturers charging for CAD data relating to replacement parts. The CAD data would be uploaded into a USB- or Bluetooth-connected 3D printer loaded with the manufacturer’s specified materials, and within minutes, your own personal replicator spits out the part you need to fix that washing machine door hinge.”

That may sound like something from Star Trek or The Jetsons, but it is a future that is already here. Writers at The Economist believe that 3D printing could be “the next great technological disruption.” [“Difference Engine: The PC all over again?,” 9 September 2012] Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, told The Economist, “In many ways, today’s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s.” Weinberg is an expert on intellectual property and he believes the very ease with which parts can be created raises another interesting issue — piracy. The article states:

“Mr Weinberg has produced a white paper that documents the likely course of 3D-printing’s development—and how the technology could be affected by patent and copyright law. He is far from sanguine about its prospects. His main fear is that the fledgling technology could have its wings clipped by traditional manufacturers, who will doubtless view it as a threat to their livelihoods, and do all in their powers to nobble it. Because of a 3D printer’s ability to make perfect replicas, they will probably try to brand it a piracy machine.”

Weinberg insists that, in the past, “equipment costs alone have … limited the spread of the counterfeiting industry. But give every sweatshop around the world a cheap 3D printer coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods could well proliferate.” The article continues:

“As far as intellectual property is concerned, the 3D printer itself is not the problem. But before it can start making anything, it needs a CAD (computer-aided design) file of the object to be produced, along with specialised software to tell the printer how to lay down the successive layers of material. The object can be designed on a computer using CAD software, or files of standard objects can be downloaded from open-source archives such as Thingiverse and Fab@Home. Most likely, though, the object to be produced is copied from an existing one, using a scanner that records the three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the data into a CAD file. This is where claims of infringement start—especially if the item being scanned by the machine’s laser beam is a proprietary design belonging to someone else. And unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. This has caught out a number of unwitting users of 3D printers who have blithely made reproductions of popular merchandise.”

Obviously, there are a number of issues involved in additive manufacturing that still need to be worked out. I don’t believe, however, that the 3D printing genie can be put back in the bottle. Additive manufacturing is here to stay. The Economist article continues:

“As with any disruptive technology—from the printing press to the photocopier and the personal computer—3D printing is going to upset existing manufacturers, who are bound to see it as a threat to their traditional way of doing business. And as 3D printing proliferates, the incumbents will almost certainly demand protection from upstarts with low cost of entry to their markets. Manufacturers are likely to behave much like the record industry did when its own business model—based on selling pricey CD albums that few music fans wanted instead of cheap single tracks they craved—came under attack from file-swapping technology and MP3 software. The manufacturers’ most likely recourse will be to embrace copyright, rather than patent, law, because many of their patents will have expired. Patents apply for only 20 years while copyright continues for 70 years after the creator’s death.”

Assuming the legal issues get worked out, Alexander notes that “it really doesn’t stretch the imagination to consider the supply chain impact.” He explains:

“There will be Internet stores featuring 3D CAD, ready to print parts and repair depots with the only inventory and capital equipment being material cartridges and various 3D printers. … Absolutely amazing! I can see 3D printer vending machines stocked with materials to make some consumables like sunglasses. The picture selection guide will be your chosen style that you can modify in real time. When you press ‘Design Done,’ you will hear a little whirring and some mechanical movement, and then you will hear a fan cooling down your customized pair of shades. The machine will say, ‘Thank you,’ and out will slide a tray with your new shades. Let your imagination soar. It will never overtake the realities that are overtaking us every day.”

Alexander’s vending machine is likely to be one of the last places that additive manufacturing is put to use. The reason is speed. Even though 3D printers can make a dazzling array of products from bicycles to shoes, the process is slow. People aren’t likely to wait around a vending machine for an extended period waiting for a pair of sunglasses to print. Nevertheless, additive manufacturing is fast enough for many items to be made profitably. As printing speeds increase, the portfolio of profitable products will also increase. Tomorrow I’ll discuss more about the impact that additive printing could have in the future.

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