Wednesday, 4 December 2013

3D Systems announces 3D Printing 2.0

Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, announces his exciting new products and services at Euromold 2013 and CES 2014. Don't you just love how this guy asks his staff to present the new products, and then interrupts them and prevents them speaking .... almost giving them a 'Sales' lesson live on camera.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Everything is a 3D printer these days

Our theory is that there is "No such thing as 3D Printing", but it appears that the media believe otherwise. To them, everything is a 3D Printer! This stance is fueling unrealistic expectations for Additive Manufacturing.

The hype works like this: The more objects that are presented as able to be "3D Printed", the more a "3D Printer" sounds to the uninformed observer like a current day (not futuristic) magical technology.

The latest examples include a circuit board/PCB "3D Printer", a "3D Printer" that prints disposable panties and a "3D Printer" that knits jumpers.  In all three cases the media described these innovations as "3D Printers". Not only are utterly different from each other, but they share little to nothing in common with mainstream Additive Manufacturing technologies.

Here are the latest "3D Printers":

The EX1 PCB Printer layers silver particles onto paper (or any suitable surface) to rapidly create an electronic circuit board. Components can then be soldered in place. It uses two ink jet cartridges to dispense two different chemicals which mix to produce a silver image.

Tamicare Cosyflex layers natural rubber polymers and cotton fibers to create a stretchy, biodegradable fabric. It feels like a woven cloth. It sprays the raw materials moving along an automated production line. It certainly looks like no "3D Printer" I have ever seen.  Its inventors claim the same approach can be used to create textiles from materials such as silicon, teflon, viscose and polyamide, and do so with combinations of patterns, embossing and perforations. The process is quick and can produce a pair of pants in under three seconds (which equates to up to 10 million units a year).

The Stoll knitting machine is also now dubbed a 3D printer. According to some reports it "3D prints" clothes. In fact, it reads measurements from a software application and then automatically knits them with minimal waste. The final garment still needs to be stitched together. A company called Applatch is running a campaign on KickStarter to fund their own Stoll machine so as to better serve their customers with custom fit sweaters that meet the company's sustainability and ethical goals, i.e. using the minimum naturally sourced materials.

What do these three stories of "3D Printing" tell us? What exactly is "3D Printing"? Watch this space for our definition coming soon.

There is no such thing as "3D Printing"

We've said it before, and we'll say it again. There is no such thing as "3D Printing". What there is instead are over thirty different additive manufacturing (layer by layer) processes (the majority of which oriented in the field of rapid prototyping). They share little in common.

We listed some of these in our article "Hype and Hope in 3D Printing". We also talked about the 3D Printing industry as being a set of "Niches within a Niche".

These realities have significant implications. 

Without a standard 3D Printing platform there won't be an exponential growth curve as occurred with the PC revolution leading to today's cloud computing giants. Yet such is the hype generated by the 3D Printing providers and the media (primarily) that even our most respected AM industry analysts are somewhat embarrassed. As a result, they are finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to 'play down' expectations when they are invited to speak on-stage at industry events.

If you have not already done so, I do recommend watching three informative presentations from TCT Show + Personalize '13 in a track called 'Mythbusting 3D Printing'. The presentations are both funny and revealing.

Firstly, Joris Peels compares the hype around 3D printing to claims for a 'new' but very very old technology called Rotary Desktop Fabrication (RDF):

Todd Grimm lists a raft of new product announcements, but also sets a tone of caution for their incremental impact:

And finally, Phil Groves explains why "3D printing is NOT going to be as big as the Internet", despite claims to the contrary from industry leader 3D Systems.

There is hype and hope for 3D Printing. Next up, our view on what could be happening. Watch this space.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Randomized porosity grown into 3D Printed Object

Since our original post about Within Technologies the use of their software which models 3D Printable objects in ways that mimic nature (complex internal and external optimized structures) has expanded.

In this video, EOS explain how they are working with Within Technologies to 3D Print parts with extreme degrees of structural complexity. Here, a heat ex-changer is shown designed for Formula 1 racing cars. The strength/weight ratio is significantly increased.

A hip 'cup' for human implant is also shown. It was grown in titanium by the Within Medical team. It's structure includes zones of randomized porosity. This allows for bone and tissue growth into the artificial joint.

Such geometries are impossible to achieve using any other manufacturing process.

Within Technologies is a UK engineering consultancy and software development firm who have dramatically advanced 3D design software in ways that enable the modelling of latticed micro-structures and variable density surface skins combined with "Bio-inspired" shapes.

At the core of the software lies an optimization engine which takes input parameters such as desired weight requirements, maximum displacement and stiffness. It is then able to create an optimized component design with a variable density lattice structure and surface skin which meets your exact specification. The optimized component can then be manufactured using one of many additive manufacturing machines (plastics or metals) to create products.

SolidConcepts 3D Prints Metal Gun using DLMS

Demonstration proves that 3D Printed metal parts are ready for 'end use' contexts

Read the whole story on the SolidConcepts blog and see a demonstration and explanation of DLMS (Direct Laser Metal Sintering)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

3D Printed Titanium Glasses

They may be pricey, but that may not last for long. Melotte, a 3D printing company in Belgium which specializes in metals, has teamed up with a Belgium designer Patrick Hoet, to develop the first 3D Printed eyewear in titanium.

Customized versions can be delivered in a week from order. 3D scanning of the customer determines size. Orders can be placed through up market opticians.

3D Printing will level the playing field for all such optics in the future, with custom designs approaching the price of today's off the shelf specs. After all, if you can 3D print one design, why not any customization. As many have observed "With 3D Printing, complexity and variety comes for free."

Specialized software for use by opticians will need to be developed to manage the 3D model customization process. Perhaps Digital Forming can help.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

3D Social Networks help find 3D Printers, Designers, Customers

The reality of 3D printing, in any material or process, is that you need skills in both 3D modeling and access to a suitable 3D printer. That means having skills in the 3D printing process, or outsourcing to a bureau service like Shapeways, iMaterialize or Sculpteo. As those companies have demonstrated, producing great prints of high quality in different materials and finishes is not so easy, demanding specialised skills and access to expensive equipment and maintenance services. Any 3D print bureau will confirm this. There is a gulf between what is achievable at home and that which is available via a reliable 3D service.

A new kind of social 3D network is appearing which fixes part of this problem: the gulf between those who can and cannot design 3D models using software tools, and those who own or do not own a suitable 3D printer. Bringing such community members together is the mission of new Web services such as MakeXYZ and 3DHubs.

These sites are more than repositories of objects. They contain the details of people, the printers they have access to, and the 3D design skills they claim, in effect creating a 3D Printing social network.

3DHubs claims to be the "Worlds largest network of 3D Printers allowing anyone to 3D print around the corner." And MakeXYZ has just one goal "To help people make stuff by linking people who need something made with 3D printers and CAD designers in their neighborhoods."

Cool indeed.

Amazingly, both sites, while of US origin, allowed me, from my home office in the UK, to find several 3D Printers local to where I live. Literally, just around the corner! That's impressive. My local office supplies, art supplies, hobby or light machine shop may not yet have a 3D Printer, but I now know where I can go to get access to one.

Even if I could find a retail outlet near me offering access to 3D Printers would they be of the right kind? Could I print in the material of my choice? Would the staff have the skills to complete my job to my satisfaction? And would they be able to connect me to qualified 3D designers to help with my project? In short, what value would they add?

As a maker or small business looking to inject additive manufacturing into my workflow, my options are 1) To invest in a printer 2) To find suitable local partners 3) To find a shop or outlet offering access to a printer or 4) Use a 3D print bureau. My choices are expanding every day. The choice I will make will depend on a cocktail of considerations ranging over process, material, control, cost, finishing and access to support and design skills. Moreover, my choice will depend on whether I am printing one off jobs where each part is unique, or related jobs with degrees of mass-customization.

For all these reasons it is not yet clear who is going to own the 3D Print experience for makers and small businesses who don't want to invest in 3D printers of their own (plus everything that entails in terms of training and maintenance.) As a first step therefore, why not try MakeXYZ and 3DHubs yourself. Type in your zip or post code.

You may be surprised by who and what you find.

Dad 3D Prints a prosthetic hand for his son

Sometimes a story is so good it's worth just passing it on and adding nothing:

Also see Medics are printing in 3D today

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

3D Printing UAVs gets you closer to the customer

In this video, UAV Solutions, a small manufacturer who specialize in the design, supply and support for custom Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), explains how it uses Stratasys 3D Printers as part of its manufacturing mix.

This case study illustrates one of the important futures for AM .... allowing small manufacturers to take control of the design and production process in order to better serve their customers.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Liquid metal 3D Printing using magneto-hydrodynamics

If we've said it before, we'll say it again ... "3D Printing" is a set of niches within niches. Here is yet another emergent process .... liquid metal 3D printing using magneto-hydrodynamics  Think 'inkjet' with liquid metal.

Start up Vader Systems believes it can bring this technology to market just as has occurred with RepRap style fused deposition modelling (FDM) of thermoplastics. They intend to start with aluminium, and then copper and zinc.

Traditionally metals are 'sintered' from powders. By contrast Vader Systems process will produce fully fused objects. If this works it will be super-cool. The company is aiming for the under $10K market. Listen to one of the founders talk about the potential advantages:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

3D Printer market from $288m to $5.7b by 2017 - Gartner

Consumer and enterprise 3D printer shipments are growing at 95.4% and revenue at 81.9% from 2012 through 2017 according to IT industry analysts Gartner. 

In a new report Gartner predicts that "The 3D printer market will grow from $288 million to more than $5.7 billion by 2017 as consumer 3D printing hype accelerates 3D printer purchases by enterprises worldwide". 

Forecast: 3D Printers, Worldwide, 2013

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Monday, 30 September 2013

GE hangout in the Future of 3D Printing

GE Global Research recently hosted a Google Hangout on the Future of Additive Manufacturing. Summary:
  • GE is the largest user of metallic AM in the world - largest fleet of 3D Printers for prototyping, tooling, end user parts, 600 engineers signed up in AM programs
  • Opens up a whole new world for designers, convergence of design, materials and manufacturing collaborations
  • Kick starting the "3rd Industrial Revolution" where the "Process is the Product"
  • Driven by millions of people who are part of the 'Maker' movement as well
  • Beginning of a democratization of 3D Printing "Craftmanship" via access to platforms, content creation, participation and connection "Virtual to Actual"
  • GE creating ecosystems around AM to explore potentialities, especially "Software meets hardware"
  • Terry Wohlers "So excited by unprecedented change"  29% growth in 2012 but a number of challenges remain "People are confusing the results from $1500 systems with the $1m systems" 
  • GE acquired Morris Technologies using AM, GE learning limitations and potentialities
  • Media coverage over last 2 years - leading to household term - widespread interest
  • Opportunity to use AM for real production parts, e.g. GE fuel nozzles, lightweight topologically optimized parts
  • Future: multi-functional, multi-material components: integration of additive and subtractive in one process
  • Manufacturing Innovations at NAMII seeing shift to production parts and lower cost processes, need for AM Quality / Process Control
  • Sectors: aerospace, automotive, bio-medical ... broadening to motorsports, fashion, clothing, food, architecture, art ... mass customization
  • Need for Workforce Training ("People to understand") for AM ... there is a move to make this a part of direct mainstream manufacturing ("People are getting excited")
  • Nylon parts in structural applications for over a decade
  • Patient specific medical devices and surgical instruments
  • Metals are an exciting area - commercially and industrially viable in ferrous and non-ferrous and in some cases ceramic - purity and density
  • Conductivity and embedded smarts
  • 3D Systems seeing opportunity for mash ups between Additive and Subtractive - multi-functional components
  • What are the limitations? Larger parts, residual stresses, big leap to end user manufacturing, part longevity compared to 'prototype' short life parts ... "Not direct replacement of existing parts ... economics does not work unless parts are re-designed and simplified in the design software for AM production" 
  • GE "Subtractive may increase as a result of AM" 
  • Research grants for multi-functional processes .... e.g. sensors embedded in functional structures, , multiple disciplines working together "3D printing a great tool to excite and energize engineering students ... to think in 3D dimensions"
  • Better software tools need for multi-functional, multi-material, AM design
  • GE very interested in 3D Printing of ceramics ... ceramics today requires heavy, complex and expensive infrastructure and a lot of process knowledge ... GE AM printing piezoelectric ceramic materials for medical imaging e.g. ultrasound probes ... new products now in trials 
  • 3D Systems excited by ability to process many types of ceramics, finer powders/details for variety of applications including consumer
  • Avi: "Empowering start ups is a game changer" ... scale-able desktop manufacturing for entrepreneurs "The train has left the station" 
  • GE looking for talent in the community, ecosystems ...
  • GE eye is towards 3D printed rotational / moving parts ... repair and service parts close to the end user or consumer ... but GE will never give up on quality, assurance, part performance, safety, reliability, toughness, strength, peace of mind every time for every part ... "It's a new technology, a new physics" 
  • Wohlers: New standards F42 on AM, ISO/TC 261 will accelerate adoption 
  • DIY'ers, makers, engineering students 'geeks' and 'hobbyists' are adopting low end AM
  • May not see families turning out parts with home printers, but will use 3D Printing services (gifts) and some educational products (kids niche similar to Lego Mindstorms)
  • Moving towards multi-functional components, e.g. a 3D printed DC brushless motor - some process interrupt e.g. magnet insertion - but "We have an entire electro-mechanical system, fully 3D printed, break it off the support structure and it works, spin the rotor, shaft, motor works"  ( or via YouTube
  • GE final comments "AM will be just another tool just like introducing lasers into machining. It will not replace everything. We will always need machining. Does allow for new designs. There will be a shift but not as dramatic as some think."
  • Wohlers: "Cannot predict the future."

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

3D Systems still Acquiring

The 3D Printing industry is still consolidating. 3D Systems [NYSE:DDD], noted for their acquisitive nature, are still acquiring today.

In August '13 the company acquired CRDM a UK provider of rapid prototyping services. Also in August DDD snapped up TeamPlatform a cloud based platform for managing 3D projects and services. And in July Phenix Systems were acquired. Phenix specialized in very fine metal powder direct laser sintering. And in May RPDG was acquired a leading US provider of Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing services.

A long history of acquisitions precede these latest announcements.

The rate of 3D Systems's acquisitions (there were sixteen in 2011 alone) has raised eyebrows. 3D Systems is consolidating the industry. The company are snapping up interesting software (Geomagic, Bespoke Innovations), critical processes (ZCorp, Phenix), leading services (RapidForm, RPDG), consumer platforms (MyRobotNation, FreshFiber) and more.

Why is this happening?

Why are these innovative companies not able to stand on their own two feet?

Isn't 3D Printing the next industrial revolution? Or as 3D Systems CEO claims "As big as the steam engine! As big as the computer! As big as the Internet!".

And it's not just 3D Systems who is acquiring. Their main competitor Stratasys [NYSE:SSYS] acquired Makerbot Industries in June 2013. Makerbot are the flamboyant manufacturer of arguably the most popular consumer 3D Printer on the market today: the Replicator and the Replicator 2. These were preceded by the Thing-O-Matic introduced in September 2010 at the NYC Maker Faire. Even a healthy dose of venture funding could not save them. In August 2011 the company announced that they had received $10M venture funding from the Foundry Group. The acquisition by Stratasys was just two years later.

Why did Stratasys, who had previously only targeted industrial sectors, need to acquire Makerbot? Purely and simply it had nothing to do with innovation or new product development. Stratasys just needed something with which to compete against 3D Systems' own consumer products, the Cube and the CubeX.

Compare the history of Makerbot with the perseverance and innovation over five decades of a company such as Apple Computer Inc. It is ironic that some industry observers were comparing the young Makerbot Industries to the early Apple Computer. The comparison was meaningless. Makerbot grew out of the RepRap movement and Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) of common or garden thermoplastics. It was already a commodity technology. 100s of similar RepRap inspired devices were being created by one man band innovators. Stratasys could have created its own products easily. So why did Stratasys pick MakerBot? It was because of the brand awareness created by charismatic CEO Bre Pettis. He virtually defined the company with his deep 'maker community' roots. This is what had attracted VC funding for Makerbot prior to the acquisition by Stratasys. The technology was already in the wild. The story illustrates how the industry has become obsessed by acquisition as a source of growth, as opposed to product innovation.

Take another example. Objet Geometries was an innovative Israeli company who dominated in multi-material and mixed-material photo-polymer 3D printing. They defined the standard for realistic product prototypes. Yet even they failed to make it on their own. The company merged with Stratasys at the end of 2012. They name now refers to the product line only.

These examples are not of big sharks acquiring little fishes. They are not even examples of competing products. When 3D Systems acquired ZCorp it did not do so in order to take out an unwelcome competitor. ZCorp was a unique process which added to the existing 3D Systems portfolio. Similarly, when Objet merged with Stratasys there were no competing in-house products which had to be disgarded. Objet, like ZCorp, was as different from Stratasys' existing processes as ZCorp was from 3D Systems legacy stereolithography products.

Why are good companies with good products finding it hard to go it alone? 3D Systems and Stratasys now oversee sizable portfolios. They can certainly help individual products to find new customers using age-old 'cross selling' techniques (sharing customers lists and the like) but boosting sales and marketing is not the only reason. The numerous different 3D Printing processes can be considered a set of niches within niches. They are pieces of a larger puzzle.

When an industry consolidates it is a sign of commoditization. Everyone who knows AM knows it is not a new technology but has been maturing for decades as a set of discrete and very different technologies. The media may view "3D Printing" as the Next Big Thing, but industry insiders know otherwise.

What's new are the services innovations. Customers are demanding end-to-end processes and total solution providers in both consumer and industrial settings.

The Additive Manufacturing industry is at an inflection point. 3D Systems and Stratasys are still acquiring product companies in the hope of controlling patents, gaining unique processes and buying into market share. But the larger trend playing out is the race for the customer's attention via compelling services. This is why 3D Systems is buying into services via RapidForm, RPDG and CRDM and others.

The future of 3D printing is 3D services. Let the 3D Service Innovators win!

To be clear: we don't mean servicing products, i.e. maintenance, upgrade, materials.

Look to companies such as Shapeways and iMaterialize as great examples of 3D Services. Such companies don't sell (nor service) 3D printers. Instead they offer simple amenity: a transformative customer experience with comfort and convenience). When a creative 3D designer signs up to the Shapeways or iMaterialize service they are instantly transformed and become their own production line, factory floor, distribution channel, shop and retail outlet.

If you want a picture of the future of 3D printing, think 3D experiences, services and transformations, not 3D printers.

Also see "3D Printers or 3D Services?"

3D Services or 3D Printers?

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" is a remark attributed to Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943. As we now know, computers turned out to be rather more ubiquitous. A similar quote was made in 1946 by Sir Charles Darwin (grandson of the famous naturalist), then head of Britain's National Physical Laboratory, where research into computers was taking place. He wrote: "it is very possible that ... one machine would suffice to solve all the problems that are demanded of it from the whole country."

These pioneers were entranced by the ability of their primitive yet gargantuan machines to perform any conceivable calculation. At that time, Watson and Darwin could not have considered the relationship between future computing products, their applications and value-added services.

Jump forward to today. We each have a 'super-computer' in our phone. Yet IBM's server business is ailing, Google is made of commodity hardware and 70% of IBM's revenue is now in technology and business services.

How many 3D Printers does the world need? Who will own them? What will they be used for?

Shapeways has 50 printers. As of June 20, 2012, the company has printed and sold more than one million user-created objects.

With this in mind, watch in awe as Alexis Ohanian takes a tour of Shapeways and speaks to 3D designers, engineers and operations experts as they explain the story behind one of today's biggest 3D Services companies.

Search this blog for more articles about Shapeways

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is '3D Printing' a set of niches within niches? Roll on 3D Services

Analyzing the 3D Printing marketplace is not so easy. The term '3D Printing' is largely a media invention. As we have stressed before, '3D Printing' refers to a dizzying array of very different Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies (layer by layer, drop by drop, voxel by voxel) sharing little in common. It is not unreasonable to suggest that many of these techniques are still very much niche technologies. That may change rapidly in the future. Today, however, even companies with viable 3D printing products appear not to be able to make it on their own.

Phenix Systems is the latest casualty. The company, like so many before it, has been acquired by 3D Systems, the aggregator of the nascent additive manufacturing industry. Founded in 1986 the giant of the AM industry still only has 1000 employees today.

Why this new acquisition in a long list?

Phenix Systems manufacture a range of Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) 3D Printers. DMLS is one of over thirty very different 3D Printing approaches. Yet even within the narrow field of DMLS there are many specialist processes. Phenix can 3D print chemically-pure fully-dense metal and ceramic parts from very fine powders with a granularity of 6 to 9 microns. Materials include stainless steel, tool steel, super alloys, non-ferrous alloys, precious metals and alumina for a variety of aerospace, automotive and patient specific medical device applications. That sounds like a huge deal. Perhaps not. Despite owning patents in this area, Phenix decided they could not make it on their own and have thrown in their towel with 3D Systems [NYSE: DDD].

Why this continuing AM industry consolidation?

Phenix Systems DMLS 3D Printers
Is it that the market for what Phenix do is just too specialized? Is it that their products only make sense if developed and marketed under a broader banner? Is it that 3D Systems sought controlling patents in this area and made an offer that Phenix could not refuse? Or is it a sign of 3D printer product commoditization?

The acquisition of Phenix Systems by 3D Systems continues a past pattern, buying up specialist companies to flesh out a solution portfolio. It highlights the nature of this marketplace: a set of niches within niches.

In such a market, customers want services, not products.

AM users do not want to buy a slew of different 3D printers to cover all possible needs, materials and processes. Nor do they want to buy into an expensive 3D printer (and everything else required to operate it) only for it to become obsolescent when a new model comes to market offering higher resolution or material stability! Companies looking to re-engineer their manufacturing to take advantage of AM don't want products, they will seek out a trusted relationship with an end-to-end solution provider, a partner who offers rich AM process options and a consistent tool chain, with integrated software.

What the media call "3D Printing" should really be called "3D Services".

What the Phenix story and others like it show is that 3D printer makers simply cannot make it on their own. Why is this?

There is no standard 3DP platform upon which to innovate new products via innovative applications. With no standard platform, 3D printer makers cannot prosper as other companies invest and create applications for them to run on their platform. This is why comparisons between "3D Printing" and the early days of the computer industry are null and void. There will be no Apple, Microsoft or Amazon of 3D Printing. Additive Manufacturing's growth is not product centric. It is a complex ecosystem of niche products, set within a broad services innovation framework.

For all of these reasons the growth curve of the 3D printing industry will not look like the exponential growth curves and hyper valuations of the digital computing industry. Rather, it will look more like the Information Technology (IT) services industry: slow and steady steers the ship.

Further: As 3D printers become more and more a commodity item, it won't be possible for 3D Systems to buy up every company on the block. Just as in the computer services industry there will be a range of services and solutions providers for every pocket and every sector of the market. They will compete not on ownership of 3D Printers and 3D Printing patents, but on what every mature industry competes on: customer service and alignment with customer needs.

Wikipedia on 3D Systems

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Who is right about 3D printing? Foxconn or GE?

We live in strange times. Just as Foxconn CEO Terry Gou says that "3D printing is a gimmick and has no commercial value", GE CEO Jeff Immelt says he would love to 3D print jet engines ... or at least some of their largest parts.

“We make a turbine blade that is made of some of the most expensive high-heat material in the world,” Immelt said. “We put that blade through the fabrication process and the excess material is essentially waste.”

GE hopes to one day use the technology to create engine parts in a more efficient and less costly way. It would also cut down the time to design and develop an engine by half. “We’re a company that wants to own our supply chain,” he said. “This is going to be a great place to put capital.” And as we reported GE is making plans to grow better fuel nozzles.

Why these differences of opinion?

3D Printing is all about materials. Foxconn is one of the world's largest electronics manufacturing companies. It is harder to see the relevance of Additive Manufacturing to Foxconn at this stage. For GE, however, the laser sintering of powered metals has many applications.

We've said it a hundred times before 3D Printing is not one technology. There are over thirty different processes, each optimized to different kinds of materials, and they share little in common. While there could be some convergence in the far future, expect these differences to continue to generate differences of opinion about the industrial significance of 3D printing.

And that's why any analysis of the impact of 3D printing on a certain industry depends on detailed and current knowledge of the available and reliable additive manufacturing techniques.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Windows 8 knows about 3D Printing - Native Driver Support in Win 8.1

It looks like Make Buttons really will be coming to a desktop near you ... Microsoft has even created a new icon for 3D Printer Devices in Windows 8.1

In among all the complaints about Windows 8, and Microsoft's efforts to counter the advance of Apple OS X, it appears they are staying true to their course and adding new APIs for new devices .... the latest being Native 3D Printer Driver support for devices such as the Cube and the Makerbot!

Here’s what Microsoft has said about this:

"For app builders, it offers an application programming interface (API) for app developers to send their 3D models to, just like apps have been able to with 2D printing for a long time. For hardware developers, they can provide drivers that are automatically downloaded and configured when the user plugs in their new 3D printer. Windows 8.1 provides the helpful job spooling, print queue management, and UI support that it always has. And what’s great about this is that app builders can send their content to lots of 3D printers with no special work for each device – including those that haven’t even been designed when the app is shipped. For 3D printer devices, one of the challenges has been getting lots of interesting content to print. Now, these 3D printers can get content from any app that supports 3D printing in Windows 8.1, with no special work for each app, and even work automatically with apps that ship in the future."

Whether or not Microsoft believes Personal 3D Printing (P3DP) will go mainstream is unclear, but they don't want to be left out of the action if it happens. There is even an rumor that Microsoft is going to start selling 3D printers at Microsoft Stores.

MakerBot - who have been acquired by Stratasys - is coming right out of the gate with a new 3D printer driver for Windows 8.1 that offers “plug-n-play and seamless end-to-end printing from a wide variety of applications directly to the MakerBot.”

And here is a video showing 3D Printing from Windows 8.1. What's striking about these demos is that it is clear that with 3D Printing, It's the Software Stupid.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Layer by Layer asks: Is the Personal 3D Printing Revolution Slowing Down?

While the debate rages about whether or not consumers will want 3D printers at home, start up LayerByLayer is making that assumption. The company is attempting to make it as easy as possible to source the best 3D designs for great 3D printable product and have them 'materialize' on your very own 3D printer. 

As they say "Right now, the technology is too inaccessible for non-technical consumers to find useful, and the majority are left asking, "What can I actually do with this?" It’s our job to change that."

LayerByLayer are realistic about the market. In an intelligent blog entry entitled "Is the Personal 3D Printing Revolution Slowing Down?", they point to research by respected AM industry analyst Wohlers Associates, which found that the growth rate of the personal 3D printer market for 2012 was significantly lower than the growth rate in 2011. 

LayerByLayer are correct to point out the following:
  • The 65,000 people that have so far purchased Personal 3D Printers didn't care about their reliability and capability limitations—they just wanted to play with a cool new toy. The next 65,000 people, however, will need to see true usefulness of the technology before they consider buying a printer.
  • 2012 saw significant advancements in printer technology. Prices dropped, reliability improved, and layer heights decreased. But there are other factors preventing general consumers from using printers that haven’t been addressed—mainly, accessibility and functionality. 
  • The average consumer asks, “What can I do with a 3D printer?” Until we can give a good answer to this question, why should they want one?
  • Computers weren't widely adopted until VisiCalc became available; printers won’t be adopted until using one is as easy as finding the exact 3D product you want and clicking “Print.” As long as printing involves personally designing an object, or downloading a file and messing with printer settings, no average consumer will ever want a printer in their home.
It will fascinating to see whether innovative services such as Layer By Layer can create the 'Killer Apps' that will persuade more consumers to want a Personal 3D Printer in their home. 

Stratasys buys MakerBot to counter 3D Systems Cube

Recently there has been rumors of Makerbot Industries being up for sale / acquisition. Now we know the facts: the company has been acquired by 3D Systems' rival Stratasys. I suppose it was obvious really. 3D Systems [DDD] has the Cube, now Stratasys [SSYS] has the MakerBot.

There is space in the market for both of these lower-end systems. The acquisition of MakerBot by Stratasys however tells us something important about the broader market for Additive Manufacturing.

When Stratasys and Objet 'merged', which followed the acquisition of ZCorp by 3D Systems, we asked whether this consolidation was a sign of growth in the sector, or a rush to artificially bolster revenue and profit?

Read our original commentary here

Now the MotleyFool are saying roughly the same thing.  In an article entitled Stratasys Buy Shows 3D Industry Getting Ahead of Itself they explain how investors are advised to look carefully at the different sectors of this complex market, before assuming that buying into the two largest consolidating firms is a sure recipe for success.

Whether or not you win by investing in DDD and SSYS, the reality for Stratasys was this: how could they let arch-rival 3D Systems steel away the potentially lucrative (underlined) consumer/maker market all by itself. Stratasys must have carefully weighed the options of make versus buy in the plastic FDM space? What they have bought is a great brand and advocate: Makerbot founder Bre Pettis.

And maybe things at MakerBot are not all clear cut. As this blog has commented before, the number of plastic FDM 'RepRap' inspired printers out there is now over one hundred, and while many won't make it beyond the start up stage, their very existence proves that the technology is not so complex to re-create. Imagine HP buying into one of these companies. Not in your lifetime. HP and any other large manufacturer could re-create the technology of the Cube, Makerbot or Ultimaker very easily. Even so, they may not choose to do so. For the reality of 3D Printing for consumers and makers is that it is a services-rich business, as Shapeways and i.Materialize show only too well. It is not so clear that we'll all have 3D Printers at home.

So is the Motley Fool right to point to the industrial markets and the more advanced additive manufacturing technologies for the future growth potential? Or is there a massive untapped consumer/maker market just around the corner if the 'Killer App' can be found?

It all goes back to those arguments about Hype or Hope in 3D Printing.

Monday, 17 June 2013

GE Aviation to grow better fuel nozzles using 3D Printing

GE Aviation working with Sigma Labs are advancing quality processes in the Additive Manufacturing of jet engine components such as fuel nozzles. 

A 3D Printed jet engine fuel nozzle can be 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than the current nozzle made from 20 different parts, say GE. The nozzle can, for example, better resist carbon deposits and coking. 

The new "in-process inspection" technology can collect all the (big)data from production sensors and analyze the stability of the Direct Metal Laser Sintering (a.k.a. melting) "3D Printing" machines. The video tells the story:

By 2020, GE Aviation will "produce more than 100,000 additive manufactured components for the LEAP and GE9X engines, in development for Boeing's new 777X plane. GE will install 19 additive manufactured fuel nozzles on every LEAP engine, which has amassed more than 4,500 orders."

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Rumor of MakerBot up for sale / acquisition

There are rumors of MakerBot being up to sale or acquisition. Huh? They only got started!

Very difficult to know what to make of this story at this stage:

MakerBot Industries grew out of the RepRap community ... open source hardware and software for plastic (ABS, PLA) Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM).  This is the simplest form of 3D printing .... in essence squirting a suitable thermoplastic out of a tiny nozzle to build up an object in thin layers.
Founders and 'RepRap' prototypes

MakerBot have commercialised the FDM process in a range of low cost 3D printers for the  'Maker' community. They also sell to some corporates who use the low cost of the printers (roughly the same as a high end laptop) to experiment with the approach. NASA has apparently bought a few tens of these printers.

Due to its roots in open source, and the easy replication of the commodity technology, a hundred (literally) other start ups have brought 'similar' devices to market. (See the list left of this page).  Most of these FDM start ups are one or two man band companies. MakerBot is considerably larger and has been the most successful in commercializing the technology. However, there are valid competitors. Two examples are Ultimaker and the Cube series of FDM printers from additive manufacturing giant 3D Systems.

Monday, 27 May 2013

3D Printing No Impact on Amazon says Jeff Bezos

At a shareholder meeting, Jeff Bezos CEO of Amazon was asked about the impact of 3D Printing on his business model. He replied:

Inside one Amazon warehouse
"I think the answer to that is, not anytime soon ... That's far, far in the future ... You can't build interesting objects with limited materials .... Even incredibly simple objects like a toaster have dozens of materials."

Bezos thinks that 3D Printing is super interesting, but for prototyping not mass production.

Is he right?

Amazon sells and ships complete 'end user' products? What about 'end use' components in the supply chain of those companies for which Amazon is the retail distribution front end?

It will be decades (or more) before 3D Printing has any measurable impact on Amazon's distribution model.  Over those same decades the extent to which AM is contributing to the production of end use components within those products is both a complex question and a subject of debate.

The real impact of 3D Printing is likely to be the creation of entirely new product categories, including 3D Printers themselves, and not the replacement of traditional manufacturing.

You'll know when 3D Printing is making a significant impact on manufacturing. It will be when Jeff Bezos works out how he can start to assemble and manufacture, and not just to ship. Until then, expect Amazon to sell 3D Printers and 3D Printer Supplies just as Plastic Filament. And that's precisely what they have started to do.

Amazon has opened a product category for Additive Manufacturing within their Industrial and Scientific products space.

To understand the scale of Amazon's business view images of Amazon warehouses around the world.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Liberator, an all Plastic 3D Printed Gun has been fired

Following our Analysis of the Aims of Defense Distributed the group have successfully fired an all plastic 3D printed pistol, the Liberator.

Message from Cody Wilson to 3D Printing News and Trends "Fantastic. This is the first piece I've seen that nails the whole endeavor. And I was beginning to think we had created a riddle..."
 -- Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed

Thanks Cody!


According to media reports, some time before May 10th, the US State Department has written to the gun's designer, Defense Distributed, saying that publishing such designs, which enable anyone with a 3D printer to produce their own plastic gun, could breach arms-control regulations.

"The order, however, comes after the blueprints were downloaded more than 100,000 times, and cannot prevent their further redistribution by others who have already downloaded them."

"The Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance told Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson to ensure the designs be "removed from public access". It said he must prove he had not broken laws on shipping weapons overseas by putting the files online and letting people outside the US download them."

Cody's response to this is:

"DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information."

Now go back and read the Analysis of the Aims of Defense Distributed

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Shapeways raises $30M led by VC Andreessen Horowitz

The significance of consumer 3D Printing Services has been confirmed by a $30 million Series C round of financing, led by the prestigious venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

The current investors of Shapeways, including Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, and Lux Capital also participated in the round. Chris Dixon, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, is joining the executive board of the company.

"Shapeways eliminates the fixed costs of manufacturing and makes use of breakthrough advances in 3D printing," says Chris Dixon, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, who is also a big fan of 3D printing.

"We believe that technology is at its best when it enables human creativity. The Internet unlocked the world of bits. 3D printing is unlocking the world of atoms."

According to an infographic released by Shapeways, the service hosts 10,000 shops with over 1,000,000 3D-printed products. And 60,000 new designs are uploaded every month.

"Shapeways Shop Owners are the future of small business: they don't have inventory, they rapidly iterate on products, and they have direct access to consumer feedback," said co-founder and CEO Peter Weijmarshausen.

Friday, 19 April 2013

FormLabs set up 3D Printer Farm to fulfill Kickstarter commitments

Formlabs, the promising stereo lithography start up that raised $2,945,885 on Kickstarter and was then sued by 3D Systems for patent infringement, but decided to move full steam ahead into production, is now building a printer farm to fulfill its commitments to backers.

As a first step, Formlabs are required to 3D print four hundred and twenty five (425) unique Gyro Cubes. And that is a not insignificant undertaking.

Since I contributed to Formlabs' Kickstarter round, I am one of those people waiting for my Gyro Cube.

And I for one am prepared to be very patient.

As one wise person said in a Formlabs blog thread, a thread filled with people who backed Formlabs at higher levels and who are naturally impatient and excitedly waiting to be shipped a complete FORM 1:

The Sinclair C5
"If they do, we’ll all be in on the ground floor of an exciting new technology – something that might be as revolutionary as the PC. I recall spending way too much for flash-in-the-pan early home computers…Timex-Sinclairs, Commodore 64’s, Amigas, early Mac’s, etc. Wanna be on the bleeding edge? You gotta grab the train as it rolls through the station and hang on tight, ‘cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride."

That's right.

For me, history is repeating itself. Three decades ago it took me two years and a lot of hard work before my home-built kit computer, the seminal NASCOM 1, could take on real work.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Here come the Chinese 3D Printers

Just as we reported a story in which Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann argued that if the USA stood a chance of being part of a so called "third industrial revolution" it must make 3D printers (You Must Make The New Machines), China is gearing up to do just that.

China is making and exporting 3D printers even though additive manufacturing is only just starting to gain momentum the world over.

Chinese R&D is ramping up. China now has four major research centers, including Xi'a Jiaotong University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Tsinghua University, working to bring 3D printing into the mainstream.

In Jackie Chan's latest movie CZ12, also known as Chinese Zodiac, there is a scene in which the actor uses specially made gloves to scan a bronze animal head that once crowned the famed fountain clock of the imperial retreat Yuanmingyuan Park (the Old Summer Palace). The action star then recreates the bronze head using a printing machine that operates three-dimensionally.

Global sources


Monday, 8 April 2013

3D Printed DNA "Portraits"

Forget everything you heard about the ability of 3D printing to product customized products such silver jewelry with an imprint of the terrain of the area where you live. If the following stories are anything to go by, things are going to get a whole lot more personal yet.

Using 3D printing, American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates portrait sculptures from the analyses of genetic material collected in public places.

From cigarette butts to hair samples, she works using random traces left behind from un-suspecting strangers. Using DNA facial modeling software and a 3D printer, physical models are conceived, reconstructed from ethnic profiles, eye color and hair color.

Not impressed?

Let's step up. A design house called Tjep working in collaboration with another design house called DutchDNA (it could only happen in the Netherlands) have created objects that reflect personality.

Here, the DNA of a dancer has been converted into the shape of a fluid table, reflecting her flexibility and motion, which is assumed to be 'present' in her DNA.

DNA sequencing was outsourced to BaseClear Technologies.

What this story illustrates is that the combination of 3D software, computational design and additive manufacturing (a.k.a. "3D Printing") are set to fill the world with the weird and the wonderful, the beautiful and the ugly.

We sit on the threshold of a manufacturing and design renaissance.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Now it's "4D Printing" apparently

Just as everyone was getting their head around "3D Printing", along comes "4D Printing" jumping on the same meme.

Just as "3D Printing" is in reality a set of over twenty diverse manufacturing processes sharing little but the concept of layer-by-layer construction, "4D Printing" is an equally meaningless term, even if the idea is intriguing.

Researchers postulate that very soon we will be able to print objects in 3D, that then evolve, morph, merge with other objects, or otherwise assemble themselves, over time. And as Dr Who knows all too well, Time really is the 4th Dimension!

Take a look at this vision for the future of 4D manufacturing:

Thursday, 4 April 2013

You Must Make the New Machines

Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann says the U.S. has a chance to invent the manufacturing technology of tomorrow.  Rather than trying to bring back manufacturing jobs, the United States could find an advantage in new types of manufacturing machinery.

The U.S. has lost millions of manufacturing jobs since 2000. Industries have moved offshore. America’s trade deficit in physical goods is $738 billion a year.

So what’s the path forward?

"My guess is that developments around information technology, 3D printing, and networks will allow for a redesign of manufacturing. The world will be massively investing in it. The U.S. is well positioned to be the source of those machines. It can only be rivaled by Germany and Japan.", says Hausmann.


IT Industry wakes up to 3D Printing?

You know a topic has crossed the chasm when the mainstream IT media want to talk about it, even though they are sorely ill-equipped to do so. I'm not aware of many IT pundits and analysts being 'up' on their material science and manufacturing process.

NetworkWorld's traditional stomping ground is IT Security, LANs and WANs, IT Infrastructure Management and Data Center. So its was with some surprise that they announced the Three biggest misconceptions about 3D printing.

We believe that NetworkWorld picked up on '3D Printing' as a result of an article by IT Analyst group Gartner who have released a report predicting that "Enterprise-class 3D printers will be available for less than $2,000 by 2016". And the misconceptions are:

    Misconception #1: Access to 3D printers should be limited to a select few
    Misconception #2: 3D printing is an over-hyped, consumer fad
    Misconception #3: 3D printing requires lots of training

Wow. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Gartner on 3D Printing

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Metal Powder

If you want to know everything about metal powder, try the Metal Powder report.

The magazine covers developments in metal powders, their use in Additive Manufacturing (a.k.a. 3D Printing) and related topics, such as ceramic powders, non-ferrous powders and powder production processes.

Metal powders are of increasing importance in many industrial processes.

Friday, 15 March 2013

3D printing ... It's hardware AND software, good news for Autodesk?

Makerbot is partnering with Autodesk the leading provider of CAD and 3D design software. Autodesk own the well known 3D software brands such as 123D, AutoCAD, Maya, Inventor, 3DS, Navisworks and others.

It's not so easy getting 3D software to talk to 3D printers in a way minimizes friction and re-work. The image of 3D printing as little more than hitting the 'Make' button is just plain wrong. In practice, 3D designers use many software tools, adjust many parameters, and oversee a complex multi-step process.

Take a look at this 'marketing' image from Bre Pettis and Makerbot Industries. It's clearly posed.

Whether or not those objects were printed on a Makerbot I could not tell you. But you can be sure that their production was a lot more complicated than downloading a .STL file from Thingiverse and hitting 'Make'.

And that's a problem if you want to sell 3D printers to consumers.

For Makerbot to be successful beyond the hobbyists, they need software optimized for a consumer 3D experience. Hence the partnership with Autodesk.

Remember the XBOX? Will Autodesk learn from Makerbot and produce their own 3D Printers? The 3D experience needed to create a mass market is not hardware, it is not software, it is the integration of both.

And as has been shown by the explosion of RepRap copies (there are now over one hundred companies making products similar to the Makerbot) its easy to make hardware, but a lot harder to develop software.

Software of the kind that Autodesk own takes decades of R&D investment. Good news if you want to bring the 3D Printer equivalent of the XBOX to market.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Unirapid, Japan, advances SLS for small detailed objects

Unirapid Inc in Japan have demonstrated a small SLS 3D printer which is claimed to have the same 3D printing quality as those costing 200,000 to 500,000 US dollars.

The printer is "specialized for printing very detailed designs, with a maximum build envelope of 150 × 150 × 150mm. The machine prints with a minimum of 0.05mm per layer."

The resin material used is ProtoGen 18420 from DSM, a liquid, ABS-like, photopolymer that produces accurate parts. In addition it can also use NanoTool also from DSM to produce strong, stiff, high temperature resistant composite parts.

The UNIRAPID III is suitable for making high resolution parts for research and development, but it is not recommended to make large models because the speed of construction is slow.

That's the contradiction inherent to 3D printing.  If you want detail in large objects, print times are excessive.  However, this development signals further advances in SLS down the line.

3D Printing high performance shoes for elite athletes

At the New Balance Games in January 2013, Team New Balance athlete, Jack Bolas, became the first ever track athlete to compete in customized, 3D printed plates.

New Balance has developed a proprietary process for utilizing a runner's individual biomechanical data to create hyper-customized spike plates designed to improve performance.

The process requires race simulation biomechanical data which the New Balance Sports Research Lab collects using a force plate, in-shoe sensors and a motion capture system.   Software is used to translate this data into custom 3D printed spike designs.

For the additive production of the custom plates, New Balance uses selective laser sintering (SLS) to convert powder materials into solid cross-sections.

In addition to printing semi-rigid parts like spike plates for track runners, New Balance is working on softer SLS printed components that mimic the cushioning properties of foam midsoles.

More info

Monday, 11 March 2013

i.Materialise or Shapeways?

Shapeways attracts a lot of press, but there are other interesting companies out there.

i.Materialise is a 3D printing service based in Belgium. Just like Shapeways they offer range of processes and materials. Just like Shapeways they offer a marketplace for designers to showcase their wares to drive on-demand sales. And just like Shapeways they offer product finishing services.

Browsing the i.Materialize gallery one cannot escape the conclusion that the 3D printed objects look very similar to those found in the Shapeways gallery. So why would a designer or consumer choose i.Materialise over Shapeways or vice versa?

A consumer with no intention to learn 3D design would probably just browse both galleries to find an attractive product. The winner will be the service offering the most desirable products at the right prices.

As a designer, both companies would be able to realize the majority of their 3D designs, but one or the other will probably provide higher quality, larger size, subtle finish or a service more relevant to their business model. The choice will depend on many tiny details to do with the additive manufacturing process options provided, or the terms of finance, e.g. designer fee percentages.

Since both service bureaus operate a buyer-marketplace, designers will probably choose to host their product designs in each, even if they decide to work with one company as their primary relationship.

For makers, however, just starting out and learning about the complexity of 3D design, the company that offers the best tools, learning and start-up experience will win.

The end game for companies like i.Materialise and Shapeways will be their ability to attract venture capital, broaden the range of services offered, to scale their operation and to provide exemplary service.

The winner is likely to be the company that offers the most comprehensive and reliable marketplace of 3D designers, 3D data and 3D processes.

So what happens to both of these pioneering companies when Amazon enter the market? Will Amazon build its own factory of the future? Or will Shapeways and i.Materialise appear inside Amazon's retail front end?

Consider this scenario:

Shapeways and i.Materialise have both created an entirely new product category. The unique 3D-printable products on show in their galleries are available no where else, literally. The additive manufacturing processes that create theses products are themselves a product, hard to find elsewhere in quite the same convenient and accessible form.

And then what happens when every company producing similar items also provide a 3D-printer powered mass-customization 'Make App' or 'Make Button' of their own?

Just as Amazon has become the channel to market for so many companies, won't Amazon want to absorb the 'Make' feature in every viable product category it covers? As as it does so, how will Amazon's CEO think about that factory of the future?

'Make Apps' that Make Products using 3D Printing

Shapeways is now providing Web APIs into its Factory of the Future platform. With the Shapeways API you can generate and sell physical products, just by writing code!

Your 'Make App' can submit 3D data files to Shapeways, control pricing, materials and finishing, with  control of the Shopping Cart customer experience. 

Mixee Me is using Shapeways via the new API to outsource its production to Shapeways. Each Mixee is designed by you using the Mixee editor app. Then, it is 3D printed by Shapeways and delivered to your doorstep. You get to decide what your Mixee looks like - you can pick the hair, eyes, body parts, even upload your own graphic for facial expressions and shirt designs! 

Learn more here

Documentation is provided to developers here. Shapeways are encouraging the sharing of client reference code via GitHub

re:3D Gigabot brings 30x the print volume in FFF

We've written before about the desire of engineers to materialize very large objects using 3D printing.  Now a start up company called re:3D has launched a funding round on Kickstarter in order to bring a Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) printer to market.

The Gigabot provides 30X the build volume of a typical desktop 3D printer.  It is capable of prints to 24" x 24" x 24" at 100 microns in PLA or ABS. Read about the team behind Gigabot here.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Mechatronics and 3D Printing

Mechatronics combines the principles of mechanical, computer, electrical, and controls engineering into a unified whole.

Mechatronics engineers design everything from smartphones, cars, robots, medical imaging devices and manufacturing tools, to the International Space Station. They also help form a bridge of communication between the different disciplines.

The fusion of the various disciplines in mechatronics breaks down the artificial barriers between the separate disciplines. Wikipedia describes it as a "synergistic integration of mechanics, electronics, control theory, and computer science within product design and manufacturing, in order to improve and/or optimize its functionality".

Mechatronics engineers are increasingly in demand. Mechatronics is a popular option and focus in engineering grad schools, with echoes of the 'Maker' movement. It used to be called computer aided automation. It is increasingly embracing computer aided engineering and manufacturing.

Elsevier offer an international journal of mechatronics, describing it as the Science of Intelligent Machines. The journal touches on consumer product design, instrumentation, manufacturing methods, computer integration and process and device control.

If you search DesignNews you will find a Mechatronics Zone. Scan the list of articles and you'll see that Robotics is a big part of this ... including the Bots that make things - industrial robots.

Its easy to forget that if 3D printing expanded 10x fold the sector would still only represent less than 1% of global manufacturing.  So where does 3D printing fit into mechatronics?
  • A 3D printer is a mechtronic system
  • 'Make' buttons and 3D design software are the front end to a mechatronic system
  • A factory toolchain that include 3D printers is a mechatronic system
Some would say that mechatronics is a far bigger deal than 3D printing. At the same time, 3D printing has the potential to evolve mechatronics practice, simplifying many existing mechatronic processes.

The future clearly contains 3D printing, but it is one of mixed-mode manufacturing, and heavily automated. (MakerBots are not yet the real Bots)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Low cost 'Tri Trusion' 3D Printers

As everyone knows the emergence of low-cost 3D printers based on the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) of thermoplastics grew out the RepRap and 'maker' communities. They were pursuing the development of new tools, and used an open source hardware model to pool the efforts of many.

Companies such as Makerbot grew from such open source roots to become powerful Venture Capital funded start ups. They signalled the opportunity to sell to millions of consumers.

The trend was noted by industrial players such as 3D Systems who are now commercialising very similar technology for children and their parents. The Cube and Cubify is one example.

The open source community did not fall over and die. Just as in the world of Internet and enterprise software, communities are still innovating.

While Makerbot is touting its Makerbot 2X Printer with dual-extrusion, RepRapPro have announced the Tricolor Mendel - an open source 'Mendel' design upgrade, designed to work with three colors or three different plastics at the same time.

The dice below is one example of what could be printed on a tri-trusion printer, with a little care and oversight.

Monday, 18 February 2013

3D printing - revolution or evolution?

This blog has argued that the oft-cited parallel of 3D printing with the emergence of computing in the 80s is wrong. Whereas a computer is a general purpose device, "3D printing" is not.

A digital computer is a platform. On it you can build valuable applications ranging from personal productivity tools (such Microsoft Excel) to enterprise systems (such as SAP ERP) to Google (a global amenity).

3D printing is not a platform in the sense a computer is. 3D printing is a diverse set of additive manufacturing techniques that share little in common. Each has potential in its own market, but that potential is realized largely within existing product categories.

Others are now making similar points.

If you are thinking of investing in 3D printing? take care. Citron Research, a short sell advisory, has come out and is claiming that "3D printing stocks are vastly over-valued". They, like we, believe that 3D printing is an evolution and not a revolution.

Citron are keen to point out that 3D printing has great potential. Direct digital manufacturing has a place in the new industrial landscape. It will grow incrementally as new technology enables new applications. We agree. But ...

Citron are rampant in their criticism of hyped stock activity, and mainly target their angst on 3D Systems [DDD]. This is the company that controls patents in stereolithography, chose not to bring that technology to a wider market and is now trying to block FormLabs (a venture and crowd funded company) from developing new products.

Here are some of the things Citron has been saying:

"Additive manufacturing has been around for 30 years.  The only thing that is new in recent years is availability of consumer-priced 3D printers – from many sources -- along with a frenzy of thoughtless and shallow media attention."

"3D Systems presented their 'Next Big Thing' product on Good Morning America – In 1989 – This is not a typo."

"Abe Reichental of 3D Systems has claimed that 3D printing is 'As big as the Steam Engine', 'As big as the computer' and 'As big as the Internet'". In the Citron report they use a picture of a 3D printed plastic dinosaur head and then ask "Is this really as big as the Internet?"

Citron examine 3D Systems R&D, stating:

"In order to have a revolutionary technology, one would think that R&D costs would be off the charts, as the company would be busy hiring the brightest minds that are going to change the world.  For the previous year, R&D expenses were a paltry $6.5 million….that's for multiple hardware product lines for consumers, designers and production professionals, plus software, plus materials.  ...For a $3.6 billion dollar treasure trove of company, that is less research than we have EVER seen in a bubble stock. In fact, DDD has made no significant investments and no advances to the main industrial process SLA (Stereo Lithography) or SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) which are the main production print engines, in the last five years."

Citron point out that stories associating 3D Systems and the aerospace industry, in regard to 3D printed parts and the F-18 jet engine, are highly suspect. They say "The truth is that 3D Systems does not make one dime in revenue from parts on the F-18, not are their machines able to print in metal, not the materials, and not engineering or other services."

Citron ask: "With no material investment in R&D, what has 3D Systems done with their capital?

The company has  made a large number of acquisitions (32 in fact), but almost all of these are small.  They've bought a few hardware and software companies, and also numerous service bureaus, most of which were showing slow or no growth.  In fact, some of the service bureaus were on the brink of bankruptcy. Citron claim they could "write another 10 pages on our analysis of 3D's roll-up accounting engineering and sheer gimmickry to grossly exaggerate their organic growth."

And lastly, they state that it was others (RepRap, MakerBot etc.), and not 3D Systems, who created the market for the home printer. Poking fun at the time these printers take to produce objects ("12 hours to print an ugly beige Falcon") they quote a Citron reader who joked, "Why would you ever buy a 7 cent plastic falcon in China when you can print one at your home for roughly $17.50, after  amortizing the printer?"

So are we looking here not at a revolution, but rather, as Citron put it, "a reincarnation of a really old story about a mature industry with a few new high-visibility cheerleaders around it."

Pointing to industry consultants such as Todd Grimm, they quote him as saying that "Yes, 3D printing is here to stay, and yes, it will experience strong, attractive growth over the coming years. But, this bubble of excitement will pass."

Are he and Citron right?

Is the recent round of industry consolidation not a sign of growth, but of an attempt to beef up stock values in the hope of finding new revenue streams.

You be the judge.