By Rick Carter, Executive Editor
TV viewers prepared for the unexpected when Rod Serling announced “there is a fifth dimension” in the old Twilight Zone series. Now, thanks to the rapidly growing world of 3D printing, this same sense of wonder applies to our good old third dimension. Yes, 3D printing—a process whereby a machine literally builds a three-dimensional object layer by layer right before your eyes—has entered the mainstream. Some say it may change the way manufacturers operate, too.
3D printing is the name for an updated, simplified version of rapid prototyping, a process created in the 1980s to make solid, three-dimensional plastic parts for design and engineering purposes. Many of today’s 3D printers are affordable and designed for simple projects. The concept involves an additive process that melts or softens material such as plastic, wire, powder and plaster, among others, then “inkjets” them in layers, guided by a CAD program. It is considered highly efficient because, instead of whittling a large amount of raw material to a lesser amount, creating waste, it manufactures by building materials up precisely, potentially wasting nothing. It can also be fast. These are key draws for manufacturers looking to produce low numbers of solid parts. The bigger picture for 3D printing, however, is its ability to make virtually anything that can currently be molded in plastic. For example, even multi-part items (such as working firearms) can be made to exacting specifications and assembled after printout.
At last month’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES), some 30 companies exhibited 3D printers. According to the Associated Press (AP), the annual Las Vegas mega-event had to turn away several other 3D makers who also wanted space on the show floor. Among the attractions were one company’s machines that 3D-print chocolate confections in eye-catching, geometric shapes. An online video shows a BBC reporter trying one, with satisfaction, after getting over his surprise that such a feat was possible. While top-of-the-line industrial 3D printers are still known to command six-figure prices, the AP reported that many models displayed at CES were priced less than $5000. And at least one company said it planned to release a 3D printer this year for a rock-bottom $499.
Low prices like this mean 3D-printer manufacturers are aiming straight for consumers. Right now, in fact, you can order a plug-and-play 3D printer at Staples online for about $1300. The price (which is bound to drop) includes 25 CAD designs for softball-sized plastic toys the unit can print in various colors. While this unit may seem more novelty than necessity, some think consumers and others will embrace options like it that allow them to affordably create custom versions of hundreds of simple products such as smartphone cases, toys, souvenirs, decorative items, confections—you name it—with a 3D printer, raw materials and a simple CAD program. Even if consumers don’t rush to put 3D printers in their homes, experts already believe this technology has the potential to unseat China as the world’s leading supplier of many low-cost, easy-to-make goods.
Wise manufacturers will look into 3D and learn how it might impact their own operations, from both inside and out. Its potential to universalize production of items that once depended on traditional manufacturing treatment is too important to ignore. This may open new markets for some and even be a godsend for areas like maintenance when teams need to fashion parts for older equipment or in emergencies. It’s been said that if it can be drawn, it can be made on a 3D printer. Rod Serling would approve. MT&AP