What a year 3D printing technology had in 2011! This approximately 25 year-old industry is enjoying a second round of “good buzz” thanks in large part to what have been labeled personal sized, hobby, or Maker units and the media fascination surrounding them.
While MakerBots, Bits from Bytes units, RepRap systems and others have grabbed most of the consumer media spotlight, the industrial side of 3D printing has also advanced. Here’s a look at some of the more noteworthy news events of 2011.
Print me a Stradivarius
The story that probably garnered the most attention for 3D printing and helped initiate all the buzz was the one published by The Economist—Print me a Stradivarius. Soon after, all the commercial media players started paying attention to 3D printing, culminating in the question—will 3D printing disrupt traditional manufacturing? (The answer: yes, it will disrupt parts of manufacturing where it makes sense to do so. Traditional manufacturing will still be around for certain projects, but, as has happened in other industries, manufacturing will shrink and be replaced by both very large manufacturers and smaller niche players.)
The printing of food was a popular story this year. CNN Money started the ball rolling by reporting that a group of Cornell University scientists and students built a 3D printer and used material made out of food as a test item. From that point we’ve seen all kinds of foods being extruded through 3D printers, including mashed potatoes, cookies, icings, and my personal favorite, chocolate. (yumm.)
As some recognized that you can copy just about anything on a 3D printer, the question of copyright protection emerged. Michael Weinberg, staff attorney, Public Knowledge Organization released a paper, It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up, that explained the legal issues of copyright and how our government legislature has addressed them in the past. The final takeaway—watch your congressmen and senators—they don’t always make the best decisions. Or you could embrace the open source movement.
Several 3D printing technology companies and users are intense followers of the open source movement. It will be interesting to see how this works in the coming years.
The key obstacle to wider use of 3D printing technology continues to be materials—both in terms of costs (engineers and customers want them lower) and in variety (more materials that can be used in end-use applications). Some of the more interesting material introductions follow.
i.materialise, a provider of innovative software solutions, of products aimed at niche markets, of prototyping services for direct digital manufacturing and an enabler of individuals in the additive manufacturing market, introduced titanium, stainless steel, and gold and silver materials for you to choose for your projects.
Stratasys introduced a new material that can be used to fabricate assembly aids for electronic products. ABS-ESD7 is a static dissipative ABS material, great for designs that might be sensitive to electrostatic charge. Use of this material can reduce or eliminate damage from static charge. This is a good development for the semicon and electronics industries.
Stratasys also introduced easier support material removal for polycarbonate. Removing necessary support material can be cumbersome and add time to the process. The WaterWorks soluble support material will be compatible with the polycarbonate PC-10 3D printing build material for Fortus 3D Production Systems. The soluble support material – SR-100 – allows automated, hands-free removal, speeding prototyping and part production.
High temperature materials, which are suitable for military and aerospace applications emerged this year. Objet launched one that combines thermal function with dimensional stability. RGD525, for use on Objet Connex500 and Eden500V 3D printers, simulates the thermal performance of engineering plastics and is dimensionally stable when used for static 3D models and prototypes. This material lets you perform thermal functional testing of 3D printed parts and prototypes.
Objet also introduced its high-impact, high temperature ABS-like Digital Material (RGD5160-DM) material for simulating engineering plastics, clear transparent material (Objet VeroClear) and rigid white (Objet VeroWhitePlus) material for all-round application use.
Objet added to its range of dental 3d printing materials. MED610™ is a Bio-Compatible 3D printing material for dental labs.
3D Systems introduced a number of new materials. VisiJet® Black is a black colored print material for its ProJet™ 6000 unit, which is capable of printing functional and snap-fit plastic parts. Accura® ClearVue™ is a durable, ultra clear 3D printing material with Polycarbonate and ABS properties for snap-fit applications. The material suits the design, development and manufacture of automotive headlamp assemblies, bottles and containers, clear plastic consumer goods, light pipes and LED displays where exceptional clarity is critical. Accura® Sapphire is for jewelry design and high-volume production. VisiJet® Clear print material meets the rigorous requirements of USP Class VI for plastics. This material is for advanced medical and dental applications and is available only with the new ProJet™ 6000 professional 3D printer.
And in the world of unusual materials, there are plenty with more on the way. This year we saw clay, wood, ceramic, potatoes, baker’s icing and dough used in 3D printers to make various objects. One of the more interesting odd materials was cement. Yes, even cement was 3D printed and used in the construction of buildings, leading some to speculate that soon we will be printing our own homes.
Another interesting print material is paper. Mcor Technologies Ltd is the manufacturer of the only 3D printer in the world that uses paper as the build medium. It turns out that paper parts are suitable for a variety of applications including industrial, vacuum forming, casting, prototyping for industrial design, architecture, medical/dental, and gaming.
3D printers print parts in space
Yep, 3D printers went into space and worked just fine. The BfB™ 3000 3D printer from 3D Systems completed two zero gravity test flights in partnership with MADE IN SPACE, a start-up dedicated to providing solutions for manufacturing in outer space. The possibilities of 3D printing in space range from building on-demand parts for human missions to building large space habitats that are optimized for space.
3D printing entered the fashion world. Shoes, clothes, bathing suits were just a few of the items made from 3D printers.
Not that I would want to wear some of those items as they do not look very comfortable.
Jewelry artists adopted 3D printing technology big time. Nearly any open source 3D printing site offers CAD drawings of various forms of jewelry.
CAD programs for novices
Another interesting development was the emergence of easy to use CAD programs for those with little engineering CAD experience. Among them are 3DTin, TinkerCAD, Sketch Up, 3D Via, and Autodesk, which entered into this part of the market with its Autodesk 123D. These programs tap a market of artists and others who may not want to learn CAD but who do want to design. Expect this trend to continue. In fact, some industry experts anticipate that the function of CAD design will shift from making designs to creating easier to use CAD software.
For those who may be a bit uncertain about starting from scratch to design something, there are a number of sites that allow users to redesign an object—take a basic design and customize it. This designed to be re-design trend includes Vizardz, Shapeways, Kodama Studios and i.materialise.
The 3D printer did it
Unfortunately, the ease of 3D printing enables some to use these devices for criminal activities. Mr. Weinberg hinted at this in his copyright paper, indicating how easy it is to print a gun. Recent crime reports show that 3D printing has been used to print ATM skimmers. Open source designs, low-cost printers—at some point legislators will pass laws to address this development.
Size and speeds
Capabilities, such as size, speed, capacity, and so on are meant to be broken. In 3D printing technology, the current edges (for the moment) of the bell curve are:
Size—4000 by 2000 by 1000 mm (157.48 by 78.74 by 39.37 in.) is the current reigning large size courtesy of the VX4000 3D printer from Voxeljet.
And the smallest, at least according to Vienna University of Technology, is a prototype micro-printer. The prototype is no bigger than a carton of milk, it weighs 1.5 kilograms (3 lb).
Then the Origo debuted. It’s a 3D printer for users aged at least 10, maybe for adults too.
Hobby/Maker type 3D printers still have accuracy and speed issues, but these units have really made strides in these areas, and improvements continue thanks to a number of determined independent entrepreneurs who refuse to pay high prices or settle for less. Ultimaker, a Dutch 3D printer manufacturer reported a feed rate on its units of 300 mm/s; travel rate is 350 mm/s. Not bad. Industrial units travel from 12 to 20 mm/hr, roughly 240 times faster.
3D printing in Medical
The medical industry has become a big user of 3D printing, and not just for hearing aids or dental appliances. Researchers have printed bone or bone like materials. EOS has been printing metal parts that can be used in surgery to attach to bone for certain surgical procedures far a couple of years.
And researchers have been working on printing organs (so far, none of them working or FDA approved). In addition, researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Bio-Acoustic Mems in Medicine Laboratory have developed a new automated bioprinting approach using stem cell embroids (aggregates of cells derived from embryonic stem cells) to grow new body parts for organ transplants or tissues.
Companies acquiring others continued to be the big story of 2011. While the industry is probably not consolidating, a few companies certainly made an impression. Here are some of the highlights.
Stratasys acquired Solidscape, Inc.. Solidscape is a manufacturer of 3D printers serving investment casting applications in the jewelry, medical, dental and industrial markets.
3D Systems bought the materials side of Huntsman, specifically its RenShape SLA materials. The deal also included the purchase of the Araldite®Digitalis 3D additive fabrication machine. Whether this unit will be supported by 3D Systems is yet to be determined. The Araldite®Digitalis is a polymeric additive fabrication system that can manufacture large numbers of parts simultaneously at high speed. Based on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), it is different from the light-reflecting MEMS technology used in many 3D printers.
3D Systems acquired Freedom Of Creation (FOC). FOC’s extensive body of work includes products commercialized by leading fashion and design labels and the coveted FOC Collection.
3D Systems acquired The3dStudio.com. The plan for 3D Systems is to open up the potential of access to the broadest possible audience. Noted Abe Reichental, President and Chief Executive Officer of 3D Systems, the goal is to enable access to affordable tools to anyone with interest in creating, as well as develop a destination for users to commiserate, communicate, and collaborate with others.
3D Systems acquired Quickparts. Quickparts is a leading custom parts services company based in Atlanta, GA.
And one of the last acquisitions done by3D Systems, and arguably one of the more interesting acquisitions, was that Z Corporation. ZCorp has been a major player in the AM market for a number of years. Whether this expands or shrinks the market—time will tell. These acquisitions of 3D Systems are in addition to Sycode, Print 3D Corp, Alibre, BotMill, Formero, Kemo, and partnering with DesktopFab.
3D printing your plane
Several stories appeared about using 3D printers to print aircraft, including one about the engineers at the University of Southampton who designed and flew a ‘printed’ airplane.
The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine. No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using ‘snap fit’ techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.
And who could forget the Urbee, the first car to have its entire car body printed from a 3D printer.
All exterior components – including the glass panel prototypes – were created using Dimension 3D Printers and Fortus 3D Production Systems at Stratasys’ digital manufacturing service – RedEye on Demand.
Introducing the leased 3D printer
Don’t want to buy a 3D printer? No problem. Cost became less of a barrier to 3D printing thanks to the idea of leasing. Mcor started it with the announcement of the free D campaign, which essentially amounts to a yearly lease of the printer for about $13,000. You can print all the parts you want. Mcor will now provide their 3D printer free of charge. You choose from three different print service plans that let you print unlimited parts for the plan duration.
Then Stratasys offered a monthly lease for complete 3D printing. The bundled 3D-printer packages include special edition uPrint 3D printers, the uPrint SE 3D Print Pack and the uPrint SE Plus 3D Print Pack. Besides the printer, the 3D Print Packs include startup supplies, a support-removal system, and cleaning agent. Monthly lease packages are USD $290 for uPrint SE and USD $380 for uPrint SE Plus.
New 3D printers
Accurate and feature rich 3D printers are not as simple to develop as some pundits appear to think. A lot of engineering must go into them to keep temperatures stable throughout a build platform, keep lasers or UV lights focused correctly, and so on. So the introduction of new printers is quite a feat. Here are some of the introductions of 2011.
Stratasys introduced a crossover 3D printer, the Fortus 250mc, which combines the convenience and affordability of a Dimension 3D printer with the flexibility of a Fortus production system. This hybrid system is based on Fused Deposition Modeling and lets you control build speed, part accuracy, and feature detail.
Objet Ltd. announced the Objet260 Connex, a compact addition to its family of multi-material 3D printers. The system is based on the company’s inkjet 3D printing technology that jets 2 materials at the same time.
3D Systems announced the ProJet™ 1000 personal 3D printer and the ProJet™ 1500 Personal Color 3D Printer. The ProJet™ 1000, priced at $10,900, makes high-resolution, durable plastic parts accessible and affordable to educators, students and professionals.
The ProJet™ 1500 Personal Color 3D Printer combines high resolution, color, and fast speed.
Bits From Bytes™ debuted a color 3D printer, the 3DTouch. It prints in multiple colors. Starting at $3,900, this affordable color 3D printer includes multiple print heads for greater color and material choices, an intuitive touchscreen, and USB storage.
Another introduction from 3D Systems is the ProJet 6000. It delivers the precision and performance quality of professional grade SLA® parts.
And finally, we can unequivocally say that now 3D printing has “made it.” TV personality Stephen Colbert had his face 3D printed on TV using a Makerbot. Bre Pettis did the honors using his Thing-O-Matic to print a 3D image of Colbert’s face.