Will 3D Printing Reboot Manufacturing? [PICS]

Dictionary.com has 17 definitions of the verb “to print,” but none of them conjure up images like the metal cross you see on your right, or other objects such as glass figurines, iPad covers or even shoes — all of which can now be printed with the help of special machines.

The process of “3D printing” only loosely corresponds to our common image of printing. It may, however, revolutionize the way we define and interact with manufacturing.

Chief among the proponents of this view is The Economist, speculating in a February cover story that the technology “has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks,” thus opening it to smaller players. It’s not hard to see this line of logic. Just picture a local craftsman able to make his own customized bicycle using parts created from his printer.

“3D printing will for sure be a new mode of manufacturing,” says Peter Weijmarshausen, the CEO of Shapeways, which creates 3D objects for consumers. “People are no longer only happy with mass-produced products that all look the same. That is just what mass production has given them. With 3D printing you can produce en masse custom and personalized products at perhaps almost the same prices.”

The Cost

At the moment, 3D printing is more of a curiosity than a threat to the status quo. One roadblock holding up the revolution is cost. For example, Z Corp’s 3D printers range from $14,900 to $59,900 in the U.S. It may be steep but the costs balance out, says Scott Harmon, Z Corp’s vice president of business development. “More important than the purchase price is the operating cost,” Harmon said. The total expense for finished models is $2 to $3 per cubic inch.

The prices are likely to come down over time, and new materials are being used for 3D printing. Shapeways, for instance, added stainless steel in 2009, glass in 2010 and last month, silver to its printers. Moreover, larger manufacturers are coming on board, including Clark’s, the British shoe brand, which this month began using Z Corp’s 3D printers for prototyping.

Harmon says his customers come from a variety of industries, including mechanical design, education, architecture, retail and entertainment. While architects and mechanical designers usually use 3D printing to make prototypes, many of the firms, including Shapeways,Jujups and i.materialise.com, basically act like a Kinko’s for 3D objects — consumers send in their designs and the companies print/manufacture them. For instance, FigurePrints, a Seattle company, makes 3D replicas of Xbox Live avatars and World of Warcraft characters.

Sculpteo, a French firm, offers more options. The company can make a 3D figurine of you or someone else from a picture and also creates custom objects using 3D designs in software programs like sketchup and 3ds. Clement Moreau, CEO and co-founder of Sculpteo, says the price for such objects ranges from $20 to $2,000, depending on the size. “We have two kinds of customers — consumers and professionals, mostly mass-market artists,” he says. Moreau started the company in 2009 in order to make 3D printing available to a wider audience.

Looking to the Future

3D printing will eventually infiltrate the market, even though Z Corp’s Harmon doesn’t see that happening for a while. Harmon says the evolution is already underway: “What 3D printing will do in the short term is give business owners and consumers new kinds of products that can’t be made using traditional techniques,” he says. “As 3D printing generates scale with these new products, it will become increasingly price- and quality-competitive with traditional manufacturing techniques for a broader array of products.”

Click through the photo gallery below for a look at some of the 3D printers and the objects they’re able to create. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

View As Slideshow »

Z Printer 650

Z Printer 650

The 3D Printing Process

System Overview

The Printing Cycle

The Build Chamber


Bit Cross

Color It Wiggle the Dog

iPad Cover

Over the Top Puzzle

iPod Tray


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