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3D printers: Almost mainstream

Robert L. Mitchell | Dec. 22, 2011
Richard Smith needed to build a wall-climbing robot for a customer -- so he printed one.

Until recently, the quality of STL files produced by CAD programs wasn't sufficient for 3D printing and required additional cleanup. But, Cobb says, that problem has largely gone away in professional solid modeling tools such as AutoCAD or SolidWorks. (Consumer-oriented design tools are a different story; see sidebar at left.)

Even so, Pete Basiliere, an analyst at Gartner who covers 3D printing, doesn't see consumers using the technology for personal printing of unique, one-off household items. "What's inhibiting consumer use is cost. It's too expensive for most people." Instead, he says, service bureaus may step in to fill those needs.

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.

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, 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.


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