Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Rise and Rise of MakerBot Industries

A video showcasing MakerBot Industries has appeared at In the video, the journalist interviewing CEO Bre Pettis repeats the meme comparing MakerBot with the emergence of Apple in the late 70s and early 80s.

3D printing is now a distinct new consumer product category. Could it be that MakerBot really is the next Apple? Or is a Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printer so simple, that it will be easily replicated?

More stories that feature MakerBot

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Stratasys and Autodesk 97% Cost Reduction 83% Time Reduction

In a showcase project, Stratasys working with Autodesk have demonstrated how a full-scale turbo-prop aircraft engine model can be produced at 97% cost reduction and in 83% less time - only 6 weeks  end to end.

The engine was crafted using Autodesk Inventor software, and printed in parts on both Fortus and Dimension 3D printers.

"The engine’s gear box includes two sets of gears, which operate two sets of propellers that move in counter rotation to each other. With an engine length of over 10 feet, a blade-span of 10.5 feet, and 188 components, the engine model is massive in size. It includes several large parts, such as six propeller blades, each measuring 4.5 feet."

More info here

Objet announces massive 0.4 meter cube build volume at Euromold

Objet has announced a new 3D printer that enjoys all the advantages of its multi-material additive process, with a massive 1000 x 800 x 500 mm build volume.

It's a lovely piece of kit, but I cannot help thinking that the preparation required to print such large and detailed models, in multiple materials, and with moving parts, is a tad more complex than implied by the video.

The real Bots are not yet MakerBots

One day, in the distant future, it may be possible to print an iPhone using only 'layer by layer' additive manufacturing (AM). Don't hold your breath. Despite all of the media attention, its easy to forget that if 3D printing expanded 10 fold the sector would still only represent less than 1% of global manufacturing. The various kinds of 3D printing available today are a complementary sidebar to traditional manufacturing.

The real 'bots' are not yet MakerBots.

Consider this: One million 'Foxbot' industrial robots may be replacing one million humans at Foxconn, the Taiwenese contract manufacturing giant who make products such as the iPhone, iPad, Kindle and Xbox.

The company has placed an initial order for 10,000 industrial robots. This single order dwarfs typical sales of professional 3D printers of any kind and would be the envy of AM giants such as 3D Systems and Stratasys.

Is the consumer space different? MakerBot Industries is the poster child of the RepRap-inspired home 3D printer with products such as the CupCake, Thing-O-Matic and Replicator. Able to print plastic objects in single color and free of geometric constraint (via Fused Deposition Modelling or 'plastic squirting') the company claims to have shipped 17,000 units as of August 2012. That's impressive.

Despite the success of industrial AM and enthusiast-driven 3D printing, there are orders of magnitude more industrial robots at work in industry than there are AM machines. Whether this will change in the future is anyone's guess?

In some ways a 3D printer is a robot.

3D printer  start-ups are often compared with companies like Apple who - after the experimentation phase was over - drove the home computing revolution in the 80s and (as a side effect) set the stage for the WWW. Some are claiming that 3D printing may be bigger than the Web.

It is somewhat ironic that if MakerBot Industries terms out to be as successful as Apple, it may have to employ a Foxconn style production factory in order to satisfy demand. If so, it might not be 3D printers producing the parts for MakerBot founder Bre Pettis, but robots of the more traditional kind. The future is mixed-mode manufacturing and heavily automated.

Before Foxconn sheds its workers and replaces them with robots, take a look inside the factory as an iPad comes to life. As you do, imagine how 3D printing could take its place along the bots at Foxconn - human or otherwise.

3D Systems to democratize stereolithography

As 3D Systems sues both Formlabs and Kickstarter over patents controlling access to stereolithography, they set up a nice contradiction by celebrating 25 years of stereolithography innovation claiming that 3D Systems is "... excited by, and committed to, democratizing access to 3D printing for both the non-expert professional user and the hobbyist/consumer market over time."

This is precisely FormLabs' mission.

3D Systems and Chuck Hull are clearly proud of their stereolithography but the company could have chosen to bring lower cost products to the market years ago.

Should 3D Systems stand down from their legal action and give the talented and young team at FormLabs a chance? It's been over two decades. Patents have expired or are expiring. A new generation of makers with us, eager to take Chuck's pioneering work to the next level. Should he let them?

Did 3D Systems keep the price of stereolithography artificially high?  Or did they simply miss the significance of the larger potential market created by the commoditization of 3D Printing?

No one yet knows who will win out in the legal case. Does it mark the end for FormLabs, or will they allow themselves to be acquired by 3D Systems? Could it be that the patent does not apply to the mechanism behind the FORM-1? Or were 3D Systems about to announce new lower cost SLA machines of their own? Did they need a little more time and chose to use their financial muscle to hold the young upstart FormLabs at bay?

Whatever the substance of this stereolithography patent wrangle turns out to be, is it possible that FormLabs innovated in other ways? Do core science and engineering patents always trump every other factor?

Read more here

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Challenge to MakerBot: Platform not Product

I was going to buy a CupCake, but then I thought, "Shall I wait for the Thing-O-Matic?" Fearing obsolescence I never did around to that. And I was right ... along came Replicator. Looked nice, but what about those rumors of the Replicator 2? Finally, credit card in hand ... Replicator 2X hits the blogs. 

Regular obsolescence is OK at Kindle, Android and iPhone prices, but even some of those consumers are becoming vocal about the upgrade problem

3D printers are far more expensive than smart phones. No one is going to buy a new one each year. For this, and for engineering reasons, what's needed is a 3D printing platform. 

A platform is not the same as a kit. It is also more than the outer case. A platform is designed from the get-go to be both modular and expandable, in as many dimensions and attributes as humanly possible. 

This nirvana may be too early for the market, but I would like to know that my 3D printer supplier is thinking "platform" as I invest, with them, in the development of my evolving home factory. 

Can new 3D printers feel more like early home PCs? 

In the late 70s and early 80s, kits such as the NASCOM provided a true computing platform. They were given a sophisticated bus on the main board, and could be expanded via cables or rack - home made or otherwise. Hobbyists could add additional purchased or homegrown cards for memory, graphics, disk, other I/O, specialized peripherals, and software. 

Or think about how R/C car enthusiasts upgrade critical parts such as transports, motors, wheel bearings and shocks, replacing plastic with metal, in order to achieve greater performance. 

I think the 'maker' community is starting to think this way about 3D printing. MakerBot Industries may have abandoned the idea of supplying kits but that decision is not incompatible with the idea of providing a platform.

A German RepRap group has described a new 3D printer called the PTotos X400. I'm not saying that this is the perfect 'platform', but do you think it is heading in the right direction? 

Here's my wish list:
  • I need my supplier to think platform not product or kit
  • I don't need them to amaze me with a new product each year, this is more than likely to depress me
  • I don't want build volume to be limited from the get-go, with nowhere to go
  • I need them to explain how they are building in expansion and upgrades in everything they provide, even if those shopping options are not available today
  • I wish to start on a sound base, of industrial strength
  • I can imagine higher fidelity everything that impacts part quality, from chassis, to electronics, through motors, print heads, rods, drives, bearings, belts and shafts
  • I must be able to upgrade any critical part, such as to a ceramic platform
  • I need the confidence to know that I won't be cut out of process, geometry or material innovations coming down the line
  • I will eventually want to experiment with multiple print heads, of different types
  • Why couldn't my factory also support milling?
In short, I want to be able to upgrade my 3D factory over time, just like I do my sound system. What's your 3D platform wish list?  

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Is 3D Printing the Microwave Oven of the future?

The hype surrounding "3D printing" has now reached the point where journalists in one part of the media are criticizing journalists in other parts of the media. Ironic, since it is largely the media, not the industry, that has inflated the significance of additive manufacturing.

I particularly enjoyed Willard Foxton's analogy between additive manufacturing and cooking.  Writing in the The Telegraph he concludes: "It strikes me that 3D printing is the microwave of manufacturing. If you look back at newspapers from the 1970s, people predicted that microwaves would be the only device in a kitchen, and that every dish would be microwaved. That never came to pass. Like microwaves, 3D printing will be important, but this isn't the industrial revolution that techno-libertarians would have you believe."

Perhaps Mr Foxton has not yet heard that 3D Printing is also predicted to dominate the kitchen just as the microwave was predicated to do, but did not. Nevertheless, we do all own a microwave ;-)

Friday, 23 November 2012

Carbomorph material for 3D Printed Electronics

With the increase of additive manufacturing (3D Printing) in so many product categories, it is natural that the specter of "printed electronics" is raising its head. 3D printing can already manufacture in multiple materials and with moving parts, so why not embed the electronics as well?

This is NOT 3D Printed Electronics
The idea of 3D printing a product with embedded electronics appeals to anyone with the proverbial "Star Trek" replicator on their mind. The idea also appeals to 'makers' who already use 3D printing to make plastic parts for their homegrown and community-led electronics projects. Examples include FDM-printed plastic robots with LED eyes and customized boxes for devices such as the Arduino and RaspberryPi. 

A lot of real electronics is already "printed" of course, e.g. thin film transistors, resisters and the like. Wikipedia is a useful starting point for learning about this field. More is coming.

The Norwegian company ThinFilm are advancing the state-of-the-art using esoteric techniques such as printing re-writeable non-volatile memory using ferroelectric polymers. This opens the possibility of printed "memory everywhere", in toys, cards, games, sensors, batteries, displays, RFID tags and on other surfaces.  The use of a polymer must ring loud bells for anyone interested in the development of hybrid AM processes that include electronics. 

In another development, Stratasys are collaborating with Optomec to develop printable objects embossed with electronics. Optomec's Aerosol Jet Printing (AJP) has the ability to print fine feature electronic, structural and biological patterns onto almost any substrate.  

More recently, a team from the University of Warwick in the UK have created an inexpensive conductive plastic nicknamed 'carbomorph'. They have demonstrated how the material can be FDM-printed as part of a 3D object to form touch sensitive areas, flex sensors and buttons. They plan to print wires and connection points to external devices.

Can these techniques be used to create hybrid 3D printing processes that embrace electronics? Imagine if, for example, one of the many material options offered by Object included a material like carbomorph or an electric polymer? 

I wonder in what combination fused deposition, inkjet, polyjet, aerosol jet, ferroelectric polymers, carbomorphs, silver-nanos and sol-jel inks will win in the race to a usefully general-purpose 3D-printed electronic platform, one that is compatible with other AM processes.  If anyone out there has any cross-over ideas, do let me know. 

Next step: Now imagine throwing in 3D printed optics to boot, replacing the discrete LED eyes in the plastic robots above. I cannot help thinking that the journey to a future where it is possible NOT to need to assemble a sophisticated consumer product is a long one. It will also require changes in the way we think about the internal geometry, proximity and interconnection of parts.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Big Friendly Giant (BFG) of 3D Printing - Glassy (Amorphous) Metals

If anyone questions whether the term "3D Printing" is slightly ridiculous, referring as it does to so many utterly different processes, add in the orthogonal dimension of materials science and you'll see why.

A small research company in Sweden has announced a unique breakthrough in bulk "metallic glass" manufacturing.
For those of us outside the field of materials sciences, BFG stands for The Big Friendly Giant, a character in a children's book of the same name by Roald Dahl. To a materials scientist it is Bulk Metallic Glasses or glassy alloys.

To a scientist, the technical term 'glass' means far more than window-glass. It refers to amorphous (non-crystalline) materials and their transition states, e.g. from hard and brittle to soft and rubbery. It turns out that a wide range of materials can exhibit an amorphous state, including metal alloys and polymers.

Transparency is associated with the amorphous state. But whereas ordinary glass is an insulator, a glassy metal can be an electrical conductor.

Exmet's breakthough is that they have demonstrated how the additive manufacturing process called Electron Beam Melting can be used to make products from Glassy Metals. The material is extremely strong (2 to 15 times that of a normal crystalline metal), extremely plastic, non-corrosive and potentially highly resistant against metal fatigue. Thus, just as using polymer rather than ordinary glass for eye lenses results in a much lighter pair of reading glasses, glassy metals could bring similar benefits to a range of industrial product areas, including biomedical implant manufacturing. Imagine for example, a titanium amorphous state.

Previously, production of glassy metals was limited by  inadequate manufacturing methods set by traditional approaches such as casting, melt spinning and thermoplastic forming.

More info here

Take away: This story illustrates why the impact of additive manufacturing on global manufacturing supply chain cannot be judged by adopting a broad term such as "3D Printing".

When working with clients, AM consultants look to the details and intersection of materials science and additive processes. They contextualize the possibilities within the design process of existing products or for the potential of new products needed in the world. It's a constantly changing maze.

Each 3D Printer maker is always trying to extend the range of materials available for their process. This applies whether you are MakerBot (Fused Deposition Modelling) at the 'enthusiast engineer' end of the market with PLA, ABS and PVA filament or Objet (advanced 'Inkjet' 3D Printing) for the production of professional prototype or 'end use' parts with a range of over one hundred photo-curable polymers.

At the same time, materials suppliers are constantly improving and adapting existing materials or are developing new materials for use within existing AM processes. This applies whether you are faberdashery at the 'maker' end of the market creating unique filament for your RepRap spool, or Exmet at the extremes of materials R&D conjuring up 'glassy metals' for use on Arcam Electron Beam Melting (EBM) machines.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Shock - 3DSystems suing Formlabs and Kickstarter - Stereolithography patents

Now it gets nasty.

Giant 3D Systems is suing both tiny Formlabs, and Kickstarter, over patents relating to 3D printing, specifically stereolithography. After an incredibly successful funding round on Kickstarter, the sad news will come as a surprise to many.

According to the BBC, in legal filings 3D Systems point to statements by Formlabs executives about the expiry of related patents, allowing it to avoid paying licensing fees to 3D Systems. They also cite statements by investment bank JP Morgan highlighting the disruptive threat posted by Formlabs and low cost stereolithography to future sales of more expensive 3D Systems products.

3D Systems says that Formlabs did not approach them to ascertain whether their work might risk patent infringement. 3D Systems are claiming immediate and irreparable injury and damage to their business.

As well as crowd-sourced funding via Kickstarter, Formlabs is VC-backed. It is unusual for venture capitalists not to have done their due diligence with respect to any blocking patents. Especially in this case, the patent angle was well known. More will no doubt emerge over the next days and weeks.

The news comes after financial analysts highlighted questionable accounting practices at 3D Systems, which led to a stock slump. At the same time, some commentators are saying that despite consumer and media excitement about the potential of additive manufacturing, the sector is over-hyped, and ripe for a bubble.

Backers of the Formlabs Kickstarter funding round which totally $2.9M will no doubt now be wondering whether that money will be diverted from fulfilling orders for Form-1 printers, into the coffers of industry giant 3D Systems [NYSE:DDD].

The rights and wrongs of this specific case have yet to be determined.

The moral of the story may be: do not back a start up with significant cash unless it is clear they are not infringing patents of incumbents. The cash might not end up where you sent it! Let's also hope it does not end up in the hands of lawyers, depriving Formlabs of the funds it needs in order to fulfill the orders pledged via Kickstarter.

It is inevitable that companies whose market valuation depends to a large degree on patents will defend their future earnings potential on behalf of their stockholders.

There is a wider debate about the global patent system and whether it is broken. Whole books have been written about it.

Read Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It The Economist said of this book that it is "A disturbing analysis of how the patent system, the heart of the knowledge economy, is rotten. With plenty of examples, the authors explain how America's patent system has become slow and bureaucratic, awarding too many patents for the wrong sorts of things. As a result, it is a threat to this most innovative economy."

No one knows how the action taken by 3D systems against FormLabs and Kickstarter will turn out. More and more coverage of the story is appearing around the web, including links to the legal documentation:

Experts claim that key patents in 3D printing start expiring in 2013, and will continue to lapse through 2014 and 2015. Enthusiasts hope for a big bang of 3D printer innovation, and massive price-drops, in the years to come.

3D Materials creativity from faberdashery

With more and more people owning a home 3D printer, and then wondering what on earth to do with it, demand for novel materials will increase.  One company that designs and manufactures unique thermoplastic filament "by the metre" is cleverly named faberdashery.

For example, take a look at this beautiful dark blue filament, flecked with stardust. "Reminiscent of a clear starry night, create a new cosmos in every object. It prints to a rich blue with a hint of translucency, to reveal the subtle silver glitter."

These new filaments are unique in having certain properties such as aesthetic colours, smelling nice when printed and not made from fossil fuels.

More unique filaments here

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Rich clients will pay for expensive 3D Printed models

It costs $14 and $38 shipping at Cubify to print plastic robots. What do you think it would cost to 3D print a model like this?

It is a model of Yongsan District in Seoul, the most expensive real estate. The model was produced for clients of top architectural modelling firm Modelzium. An Objet Eden 3D Printer was employed.

If you plan to build that city, the price of a 3D object no matter how expensive, is of utter insignificance.

More info here

Is Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBR) 3D Printing?

We've discussed before how 3D printing is not a single platform nor a single technology. Here is an extreme example. Could Molecular Bean Epitaxy (MBE) be called "3D Printing"? It works 'layer-by-layer' which is the only shared characteristic of many other additive manufacturing technologies, so I don't see why MBE cannot be called "3D Printing" (grin)

MBE builds molecular scale structures to form objects - just like a MakerBot uses plastic, but on a far smaller scale.  If you want an MBE machine at home, take a look at this image:

Electronics giant Sharp has an experimental MBE machine on the Oxford Science Park in the UK. Oxford’s scientists can grow a small platter of LEDs in half a day. On a commercial scale, they’ll grow four times each day, generating thousands of LEDs per platter, to produce anything from tens of thousands to millions of finished components with each 24 hour cycle.

This small MBE is actually a baby compared to those found in factories, but serves as an incubator for inventions yet to make it to high street shelves. The idea is that in the future MBE machines may be able to extend beyond LEDs and laser components, to a wider array of everyday electronic gadgets.

More info here

Precise Military and Industrial Parts in the field and on-demand

With NASA investigating whether it is practical to 3D print parts in Space, and EADS investigating whether it is practical to 3D print parts on the battlefield, it's interesting to look at the products that EADS chose for its pilot. They were:

spaceclaim.jpg   scanninng-1-web.png

Monday, 19 November 2012

'Make' buttons coming to a device near you

What MyRobotNation, Cubify, Shapeways, PonokoSculpteo, i-Materialize, FigurePrints and Mineways are demonstrating is that there is absolutely no reason not to put a 'MAKE' button in any Web service, game or software package.

It's going to be a race to find the apps that create the experiences, the business model to capture orders, and the factory of the future to fulfil them. Who will win?

Will it be a retail, fulfilment and cloud services giant like Amazon? Or perhaps there is time for existing 3D print services to scale up (before they are acquired). Perhaps the printer manufacturers will extend their industrial parts services, to the consumer tsunami. Is it possible that a custom sourcing marketplace such as Alibaba could make a move?

It's been noted that GE, with its broad range of products, is exploring additive manufacturing. Estimates of millions of dollars of saving have been made if GE used 3D printing for just one part in one product. Amazon has a similar scale of interests, but does not manufacture today. Is 3D printing cost effective enough to entice Amazon to an experiment?

Will Amazon and GE see 3D printing as a business to be in, or simply a new manufacturing method. Will 3D printing disappear into supply chains as traditional parts are selectively replaced by 3D printed alternatives?

It may not be only 3D printing that matters. After all, there are many other ways to automate manufacturing.  Expect to see traditional machines along side the new 3D printers in the factory of the future. There might be more than an .STL file behind the 'Make' buttons of the future.

MakerBots in a Booth on every corner

A way forward for accessible 3D printing.

The Dreamvendor is four MakerBots in a booth. Students can bring along their SD-cards containing 3D making code (G-Code, STL file, etc), and can quickly fabricate prototypes related to their projects or personal interest.

The machine has no inventory. Instead, it is simply reloaded with spools of coloured plastic filament.

More info here

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Amazing consumer 3D Print Services, but is the business model right?

Sign up at MyRobotNation and you can have an utterly unique 4-inch high robot figure for approximately $60 including international shipping. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed designing my robot but at $60 a shot I think 3DR01 will the first, and only, member of my robot nation.

At my kids can order an electronically controlled robot arm kit for less. The kit will contain over 150 parts including 5 motors for 5 axes of control. It will not only take longer to build than the 3D printed robot took to design, but offer greater learning value and, fun afterwards. All a 3D printed robot can do is sit on the shelf, a cute ornament, not a toy. 

Powered by a cleverly branded UI and ZCorp printers, MyRobotNation is a marvel. It shows what is possible with 3D printing, but it is nowhere near the price point required for consumer adoption. The site is currently shipping about one and a half robots per day. (I know this because of the position of my robot in the carousel of newest robots

Price is a similar problem at other consumer 3D print sites. I was attracted to Cubify where I found Robot Collection #1. The site is owned and operated by 3D printing giant, 3D Systems

For $14 you can buy a set of three plastic snap together robots. A child can pose the robot or swap its parts with others for color or shape combinations. Judging by images, the robots are about 2.5 to 3 inches in height. This is the kind of toy you can find in packs of ten at our local market, for less than two UK pounds! But hey, the Cubify robots were "3D Printed" .... doesn't that justify the mark up? No, it does not. Worse, when I went to check out at Cubify I was offered no shipping options. Shipping of $38.68 was added to my $14 order. For three small plastic robots, they must be kidding. 

The experience of 3D design is not something you can sell, over and over again, hoping to embed the cost within each object purchased. Unless per-print prices drop dramatically, consumers will not be handing over their credit card to their kids. After all, cute plastic printed robots and other trinkets are not new products. You cannot overcharge for them, no matter how unique they are. Rather than buying parts, parents would be far better off buying the child their own 3D Printer! And that's precisely the plan.

The Cubify service launched off the back of the Cube printer. 3D Systems hope that the experience of selecting, customizing, buying, and eventually holding a 3D printed object will entice families to purchase their own Cube 3D printer. At the prices for piece-parts I quoted above, it will! But in a rapidly changing field with better printers appearing all the time, many will stop and think twice.
The Cube - What's in the Box

Cubify is hanging its success on 3D content ... providing downloads of 3D model data to print @home. In this way they hope to kick start a 3D printing habit in every child. 

Just as the Kindle e-book reader links the device to an Amazon account, the Cube printer needs to be activated and linked to a Cubify account. 

Books are however very different to plastic toys. They take time to read. And analogies with home PC take up may be equally vacuous.

In the late 70s, hobbyists were already moving from building, to buying, early home PCs. Later, in the early 80s, home PC sales were driven by the availability of a rapidly growing catalog of software titles. There was a virtuous circle - a symbiotic relationship between hardware and software - each driving sales of the other. Is this an analogy for Cubify and similar services? Are 3D 'objects' the new software?  

For the time being at least, 3D objects printed at home may be unique, but they are also homogeneous plastic, offer few moving parts and limited color. They resemble cheap plastic toys. How quickly will the novelty wear off? By contrast, a software title once purchased is not an object put on a shelf. It becomes a regular activity, driving further attention to the computer upon which it runs. 

It's early days for consumer 3D. No one really knows what is going to stick. Perhaps what is needed at 3D printing sites like Cubify and MyRobotNation is to price 'as a service', not as a transaction. It's the experience that sells, not plastic toys available elsewhere for peanuts.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Hype and Hope in 3D Printing?

Recently there are been a lot of hype in the media about "3D Printing". This was identified by Gartner, but their analysis of the coming "trough of disillusionment" should not in any way diminish the potential of additive manufacturing (AM) itself.

Others are now adding their voice to the concern about over-hype. Jon Evans dissed the analogy between the rise of 3D printing and that of 2D printing. And Jim Woodcock fears hype in consumer markets will negatively impact very real industrial applications.

Let's talk straight about 3D Printing. 

The term was first used by students at MIT in 1995. Graduates Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson modified an inkjet printer to extrude a binding solution onto a bed of powder, rather than ink onto paper. It neatly summed up what they achieved. However, using the term today can obscure the many different technologies that lie beneath.

As we touched on in "How many 3D printers do I need at home?" there are perhaps as many as thirty five (35) distinct additive manufacturing methods including:
  • Fused deposition modelling (FDM), which is suitable for use with a variety of materials that are pliable at higher temperatures, but which solidify upon cooling. Materials are extruded from a nozzle. It can work with common plastics such as ABS and PLA as used in plastic filament extrusion printers, edible materials like chocolate and a slew of other mixtures and compositions of diverse materials that have the property of a melting range. These are called eutectic materials and include diverse materials such as alloys, certain inks used in printing, even some minerals. 
  • Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), which is suitable for almost any metal alloy and also for ceramics. Sintering is a method used to create objects from powder. It is based on atomic level diffusion. A laser heats the powder and the atoms diffuse across the boundaries of the powder grains. 
  • Selective heat sintering (SHS) with a thermoplastic powder. 
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) with thermoplastic powders, metal powders and ceramic powders.
  • Powder bed and 'inkjet' head 3D printing, in which an inkjet-like printing head moves across a bed of powder depositing a liquid binding material in the shape of the final object. 
  • Electron beam melting (EBM) with titanium alloys.
  • Laminated object manufacturing (LOM) with paper, metal foils and plastic films. 
  • Stereolithography (SLA) in which laser sweeps through a bath of photopolymer, creating a solid out of liquid. 
  • Similar to stereolithography in using light, Digital Light Processing (DLP) employs a projector whose rapid movements of a micro-mirror plays the role of the laser, in this case hardening a liquid resin. 
  • Any others I have missed?
Even if we look at the simplest, FDM, printer hardware varies depending on the target material. There is no universal printer, and therefore no universal "3D printing" platform. Each technology has its role, some highly specialized. 

The only thing that all of these technologies have in common is the 'layer-by-layer' approach. 

As we have discussed before, 3D printing is therefore unlike the emergence of the early home PC in which the machine could be re-programmed by software for any task. While a 3D Printer can be re-programmed to produce any object it can only do so within its materials constraints. 

The world of atoms, it turns out, is rather more messy than the world of bits!  (Although one day, no doubt, advanced research at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms may prove us all wrong.) 

As if we needed more ways to dampen the hype, experts Econolyst point out that there could be as many reasons not to use additive manufacturing, as there are reasons to adopt it. They point to barriers such as part accuracy, repeatability  mechanical property limitations, limited materials availability and data, immature supply chains (making it impossible to cost effectively insert additive manufacturing into the mix), and limited cost benefit analysis data upon which to make investment decisions.  

No doubt in the future we shall see new additive approaches and the emergence of hybrid machines. For the time being, complex products with embedded sub-systems still have to be assembled - despite the eye-catching demonstrations of 3D-printed objects with moving parts. And embedded electronics is some way off. Even the much heralded and truly remarkable multimaterial printers are only ambidextrous in their own domain, e.g. photo-polymers with differing qualities such as rigid, flexible, opaque, transparent. 

The diversity of the 3D printing landscape does not matter. This will foster many niche markets - both for 3D printers and for 3D-printed parts or products. The field is literally exploding with creativity! Hype is inevitable. Get over it. But never forget that even if additive manufacturing grew to 10x its current volumes, it would still be less than 1% of global manufacturing. 

For all of these reasons "3D Printing" projects must start with a sober analysis of what is needed to be made. The hard work is finding a way to do this with acceptable quality and cost. Parts or processes from other sectors can also inspire technology transfer

There is no doubt that AM-enriched supply chains are here to stay ... despite the non-existence of StarTrek replicators. Of equal importance to "3D Printing" must surely therefore be advances in digital manufacturing automation, able to embrace all of the ways that products are made and brought to market - additive, subtractive, fabrication (combination and assembly) and formative (shaping, bending, casting). 

Where it fits 3D Printing can be disruptive. But the shapes of the potential AM holes in supply chains are very complex. And finding a fit needs specialist knowledge. For the time being 3D Printing is perhaps less hype, and more hope, more evolutionary than disruptive.

Monday, 12 November 2012

3D Systems (DDD) Financials

A potentially important story is developing here. A financial analyst appears to be claiming that the way 3D Systems has reported its financial results has distorted its growth. If you have the time, the analysis is worth reading. And then check out our take on what lies behind acquisitions and consolidation in the  market for additive manufacturing equipment and services.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

TeamPlatform 3D Printing Data collaboration in the Cloud

When Web services like TeamPlatform begin to appear, it's a sure sign that a technology is being subjected to consumerization.

Additive manufacturing via stereolithography and laser sintering may be twenty years old, but the moniker "3D Printing" emerged only a few years ago. Why? The price of hardware components such as extruders, stepper motors and associated electronics has dropped off a cliff. The cat is out of the bag ... everyone can produce a modest 3D printer, even if many will be limited to squirting plastic. The availability of open source control software driven forward by the 'maker' and RepRap culture has spawned a thousands "I can build a 3D printer too!" projects. If I were a teen again, I'd be doing precisely the same.

Many of the new "3D printing" pioneers have ambitions to sell their creations as commercial products, following in the footsteps of Makerbot, Ultimaker and Formlabs. Unfortunately, many will fail, misunderstanding the difference between engineering and business and the critical role venture capital in marketing. The enthusiasts won't care. 3D Design is on the up and up. With the rise of bureau services the 3D Printer no longer matters, even though step changes in capability will occur over the coming years. Today, the critical skill in 3D Printing is not making 3D Printers, it is 3D Design. That's were the real explosion in start ups will be.

The world is positively brimming over with 3D Data! Where will we all work?

Previously the preserve of professional CAD packages in industry, 3D Software is now available to suit every price point. Kids, hobbyists, artists, small and medium sized business ... everyone is looking for 3D software, 3D designers, or ways to acquire their own 3D design skills.

Collaboration is the name of the game, which is why TeamPlatform is so welcome. It lets you create a professional customer service and engineering portal in minutes, providing a virtual space for all stakeholders in a 3D project.

TeamPlatform supports CAD, STEP, DWG, STL and over 100+ other 3D formats ... without leaving the Web browser, to visualize, revise and manage 3D models securely. Designers, their clients, and those overseeing the 3D Print tool chain can collaborate directly in Web-based workspaces and on individual 3D files. Forget about translators and workstation licensing and never-ending updates. And it's far more than a file store. Take a look here. There are online CAD tools, RFQ/RFP support, simple workflow, project dashboards for sharing progress with clients, and more.

RapidForm the 3D Scanning specialists acquired by 3D Sytems use TeamPlatform as a central place to manage 100s of client projects.

Avance Design is using TeamPlatform to manage 3D Printing projects and customer-focussed 3D design services.

We've seen how 3D designers are collaborating with consumers (B2C) via Cubify and Shapeways. Now, with TeamStation, every 3D startup can have a professional collaboration infrastructure all of its own, thanks to the multi-tenant magic of "The Cloud". And like any good Web product these days, it sports an API. TeamPlatform is B2B for 3DP.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

My Robot Nation and the future of 3D Printed Toys

MyRobotNation is perhaps the first, and most significant, of an expected wave of 3D Printed Toys. Unless you go online, design your first robot and then pay for it to be 3D Printed and shipped to you, you are missing out on a wonderful learning experience. I took the plunge and created this.

The UI is a child-friendly, ultra-simple 3D design tool in which the only thing you can produce is a cool robot! Despite this, the range of objects, colors, treatments and poses was compelling.

Taking into account the mass-customization offered, each robot off the 3D production line is instantly recognizable as part of the growing world wide Robot Nation. It's a marvel of mass-customization with locked-in brand protection.

The site offers a MyRobots gallery, URL links to images of your robots to share with your friends, invitations to Tweet your creations, a Hall of Fame, Popular Robots and a Newest Robots showcase.

This is interesting: Twelve hours after I designed and ordered my first robot, snappily named 3DR01, it is still the newest (and I believe coolest) robot on the site. Two days later one other robot has appeared. Can we conclude that the site is turning out roughly one robot per day? (Verification needed)

Everything about the experience was fun. I particularly liked the way my email order confirmation included an image of my very own robot.

What could make MyRobotNation even more compelling? We know 3D Printed models can include movable parts, so I desperately need:

* Rotating (and tipping) head
* Shoulder, elbow and wrist
* Hips, knees and ankles
* Movable caterpillar tracks and wheels

The only downside is price. My first robot is four inches high and cost approximately $60 including shipping. The 3D Printed Toy industry will no doubt figure out the price point for similar services. Here's an idea: How about discounts for creators whose robots are popular?

I've previously written about how in 3D Printing it's the software stupid! And we've also seen how software was critical in a project that makes it possible for anyone to 3D print plastic records of tunes to play back on their nostalgic Fisher Price toy record players. Likewise, MyRobotNation would not be possible without its tailored and dedicated 3D design surface.

To produce a 3D model of a toy robot, of the complexity of my 3DR01, using traditional 3D design software, would have been a formidable task for anyone other than an experienced 3D designer (or a kid with a 3D design obsession). Even so, I believe it would still have taken many days, compared to the few minutes that I spent at MyRobotNation. Moreover, their creation would not have been as 'designed to brand'.

There is a complex trade off between generality and specificity in 3D design. For this reason, I've previously suggested that in both the consumer and industrial sectors, dedicated and specialized software will emerge as the 'front end' of every unique product to its additive manufacturing automation chain. Is a common approach possible? This is precisely what Digital Forming are trying to do. 

The Digital Forming technology links designers and co-designers (customers) into a shared 3D design process. The customer is allowed to adjust 'facets' of the design within limits set by the designer. The software can also be branded by the product brand owner for embedding in web sites or store kiosks. 

Whether or not the approach that Digital Forming becomes mainstream, the trend is clear, with software increasingly supporting co-creation between designers and consumers as we saw with the example of Cubify and the customized 3D printed guitars.

Technical notes

MyRobotNation was created by Kodama Studios. The site and associated technology was acquired by 3D Systems. Kodama remains independent. The printer that is building the Robot Nation was created by ZCorporation, also acquired by 3D Systems. The service behind MyRobotNation is Offload Studios, under contract to 3D Systems. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

3D Food Printing ... the Killer 'consumer' App?

The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan is experimenting with a 3D Food Printer. You load up anything soft, like melted chocolate or icing, and it will print it in artistically perfect patterns. Jeff Lipton, a mechanical engineering post-grad, is leading the project.

The idea came out of Cornell's Fab@Home venture, where they started experimenting with food fabrication back in 2007. Chef David Arnold, has been testing out the technology since 2009. "One of the main things I hope this machine will let us do is create new textures that we couldn't get otherwise," he says.

Cup cakes anyone?

Entrepreneur Jamil Yosefzai plans to be on the forefront of commercializing 3D Food Printing. His New York City-based startup, Essential Dynamics, is working on a version that can be sold to the first wave potential customers: pastry chefs and tech early adopters.

Trust this 3D Printing story to be covered at CNN Money:

3D Cutting .... just as much fun as 3D Printing?

You might desire your very own 3D 'additive' Printer at home, but could you have just as much fun with a 3D 'subtractive' Cutter? In industry these are known as 'Mills'.

The hobby-focussed Mini 3D Mill from iModela (a Roland company mostly known for electronic keyboards and musical synthesizers) shows how it might not just be 3D Printers that end up in our garages and sitting rooms. Watch how, once again, its the software stupid!


The single machine can cut resins, modelling board, plastic, jellutong, PCB laminate, engraving laminate, wood, wax and others .... in many many colours. That's far more versatile than a typical home 3D printer. It cannot, of course, cut 'voids' in objects, nor complex geometries. But even a hobby mill like the iModela can produce better surface finish and details.

Will there be an explosion of 3D Cutters as with 3D Printers? Do we need both at home? Is a hybrid machine viable? After all, how many 3D Printers do I need at home?  Fancy adding a foam cutter from Frog3D?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Nonstop 24/7/365 3D Printing in the "Factory of the Future"

Anyone considering building a 3D Printing plant better think clearly about which 3D printers to buy. It is said that 3D printing eradicates the tooling costs of traditional manufacturing ... but a 3D printer is just another kind of tooling. Make the wrong decision, and you won't have a factory of the future, but a legacy unable to adjust to the market.

In a recent story announcing Shapeways' investment in New York City to establish a new plant, the need for job queue scheduling was discussed. OK, so new consumer requests for 'prints' can be easily routed to the right machine, and to a free machine. But what about all those pesky little tasks and dirty secrets such as:

  • Pre-processing
  • Material refills
  • Build preparation
  • Removing objects from the build chamber
  • Cleaning and finishing
  • Heat treatment
  • Inspection and validation
Humans will be in the loop for some time to come, more so perhaps than in traditional mass production processes. So a new development from VoxelJet is welcome. 

The German company has developed the world's first non-stop continuous 3D printer. The building and unpacking steps now run in parallel - without interrupting operations. This will increase the speed and profitability of small series production. 

The new printer is being displayed for the first time at Euromold 2012. The design is novel. In effect, there is no limited sized build chamber and theoretically no limit on the length of a printed part (although width and height are constrained by the size of the machine. In effect, parts move through the machine from front to back. Think of it as a 3D Printing conveyor belt.