Monday, 30 April 2012

3D Printing at the heart of a Third Industrial Revolution?

The Economist magazine has published an article which positions 3D Printing at the heart of a third industrial revolution.

"The applications of 3D printing are especially mind-boggling. Already, hearing aids and high-tech parts of military jets are being printed in customised shapes. The geography of supply chains will change. An engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it. The days when projects ground to a halt for want of a piece of kit, or when customers complained that they could no longer find spare parts for things they had bought, will one day seem quaint."

A major driver may be "servitization". The lines between manufacturing and services are blurring. Rolls-Royce no longer sells jet engines; it sells the hours that each engine is actually thrusting an aeroplane through the sky.

Monday, 23 April 2012

We like really big 3D Printers

ZCorp, acquired by 3D Systems, have introduced the ZPrinter 850, with the following characteristics:
  • A build envelope of 20 x 15 x 9 inches (508 x 381 x 229 mm)
  • Print as many as 96 baseball-sized models in a single build
  • Print in 390,000 colors
  • 600 x 540 dpi produces parts with fine detail and accuracy

"We're ZPrinting footwear designs nonstop, and the additional capacity will help us better meet the demand of our R&D teams.  The ZPrinter 850 could also open up new uses for sporting equipment where we really need large, colorful prototypes. I'm certain we'll see a huge demand for this new in-house capability." -- Dave Schwirian, model shop/RP manager, Nike

A 3D Printed Case for the Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a very new and very exciting bare board ARM-based Linux box, for $25. It's the size of a credit card. And it does not come with a case. So what do you do if you want a case. Well, if you have some 3D design skills, you load up your favorite 3D modelling software, design a case, export the .STL file, and log into Shapeways, a 3D Printing Bureau Service. Hey presto, you can have all the cases you want for all of your $25 Raspberry Pi computers.

And if you thought this was a one off, take a look at all of the R-Pi cases starting to appear on Shapeways.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Stratasys and Objet merge

Faballoo appears relaxed about this news of the merger of two 3D Printing industry giants, stating that "We had been wondering what might happen to Objet after 3D Systems' recent acquisition of ZCorp, which put the industry on notice that major consolidation was underway. Objet was a big target, with its interesting technology and large size. Was 3D Systems was interested in acquiring Objet? With their recent pattern of acquisitions, probably. However, in this case Stratasys prevailed and now is the largest 3D printing manufacturer in the world today."

We are not so sure.

Industry consolidation is usually a signal that individual companies are not making it in the marketplace. Companies set out to combine forces to stave off the inevitable. They use cross-selling of each other's products, to each other's customers, in order to generate new revenues that they were failing to create alone. 3D Systems have acquired ZCorp, and now Stratasys has merged with Objet. What's next? Stratasys merging with 3D Systems! If ZCorp and Objet were great printers, why could they not have survived on their own. ZCorp and Objet are great printers, so why these acquisitions?

To those who new to the world of 3D Printing it looks and smells like a hot new industry, especially with all of the activity at the hobbyist and consumer end of the market, with companies like MakerBot and Shapeways.  Yet additive manufacturing, in its various guises, has been around for twenty years or more. Perhaps the technology is mature. Perhaps it was time for consolidation? Maybe 3D Printer innovation was coming to the end of the line. Surely not?

Or perhaps there is something more interesting going on? Is the 3D Printer/Printing industry 'servitizing'?

Servitization is defined by Wikipedia as the conversion of product businesses into services businesses.

For example, GE Power Systems used to sell generators, now it leases power. This is a step beyond just adding maintenance services to the generator business. It's a whole new business model. GE has been taken down this road because of the commoditization of its products and component supply chain, and also because of the escalating needs and expectations of their customers. Perhaps 3D Printers are also coming under the pressure of commoditization and the increasing requirements and expectations of customer? Maybe it is only possible to make money in 3D Printing services? If so, that makes for an interesting analysis.

2D Printing did not follow this path. HP's printer unit did not have to get into the Print Services business in order to survive as a printer manufacturer. Indeed, the reverse was true. When 2D Printers were unreliable and expensive, bureau services ruled the roost. When Printers become cheaper, fewer consumers and businesses used services, they just went out and bought a printer of their own. Perhaps that is what is not happening with 3D Printers, hence the acquisition of ZCorp and Objet. Perhaps only the 3D Printing service companies were buying enough printers to keep ZCorp and Objet as viable long term business? If 'servitization' is happening to 3D Printing at the current, then this could be an indicator that either:
  1. The market is too narrowly defined and the predicted explosive growth of 3D Printing by business and consumers maybe being hyped, and/or
  2. 3D Printers are simply too complex to use by themselves, and businesses are instead looking for 3D Print Services
So with this consolidation taking place, as evidenced by the rash of recent acquisitions and mergers, are we at the end of one 3D Printing cycle, and the start of another, or is the industry already facing a struggle between products and services? What do you think is happening?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Hybrid 3D Printed objects with Embedded Electronics

Stratasys is collaborating with Optomec to develop a 3D object that can be embossed with printed electronics. In one test project, a wing for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was 3D Printed with printed electronics embedded within it.  Imagine the applications if this technique were to be perfected. "If you can print electronics onto a 3D Printed object you can give it intelligence," said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of digital manufacturing at Stratasys.

The wing was 3D printed using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process, while Optomec used its Aerosol Jet system to print a sensor, antenna and circuitry directly onto the wing.

Printed electronics refers to a wide range of techniques, but the Stratasys/Optomec collaboration raises the possibility of meshing two different additive manufacturing technologies together to create a 3D Printer capable of directing printing hybrid objects consisting of substance and electronics functionality.

The Optomec Aerosol Jet process is capable of handling the entire range of materials classes required for Printed Electronic manufacturing: conductors, resistors, dielectrics/insulators and semiconductors, and also combinations of materials printed layer-wise to create differing functionality. The jet of conductive material that that such printers use opens up the possibility of printing in three dimensions, on surfaces that are curved and have very complex geometry.

Optomec is a leading provider of additive manufacturing solutions for high-performance applications in the electronics, solar, medical, and aerospace & defense markets. These systems utilize Optomec’s patented Aerosol Jet Printed Electronics technology and powder-metal fabrication technology, which can make, enhance, and repair high-performance metal components in state-of-the-art materials such as titanium, stainless steel, and Inconel.