3-D Printing Brings Prototyping to the Home

August 18, 2009

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Imagine designing a component on a computer and having a prototype emerge from your printer. 3-D printers and desktop manufacturing technology are making this an affordable reality.

Streamlining product development and prototyping processes has always been one of the main challenges of industrial design. The branching, multi-stage efforts involved in transforming a concept into a tangible product are often beyond a do-it-yourselfer's reach. But with the advent and rapid expansion of desktop manufacturing and 3-D printing systems, design engineering is being brought into the home.

3-D printing is the central process in desktop manufacturing, or "fabbing," which is similar to rapid prototyping methods in that it fabricates three-dimensional objects by adding layers of material until a component is complete. Unlike traditional manufacturing, fabbing is automated and relies only on blueprints and a supply of materials to produce a component. As a result, a home engineer can fabricate his own objects without the specialized tools, resources or training involved in factory production.

Although the technology has been around for a few years, some experts and design engineers believe it could revolutionize product development and purchasing.

To illustrate some of the standard technical features in a home 3-D printer, Fab@Home describes a basic system, which includes a "syringe pump" dispensing tool with multiple syringes for depositing a variety of materials, linear stepper motors that function as actuators and four control axes to move the syringe tool within the needed range.

These elements form the core of a basic 3-D printing apparatus, though even the simplest models may be considered examples of unconventional engineering. More sophisticated systems often incorporate complex equipment and feature a wider range of production capabilities.

Traditional prototyping methods tend to use epoxy or quick-hardening plastic to make solid objects, but 3-D printers work with a greater variety of materials. For example, even the relatively simple Fab@Home model "also deposits plaster, Play-Doh, silicone, wax (to make forms for casting), low-melting point metals and various other materials layer by layer."

According to Fast Company, the majority of 3-D printers are only capable of producing single-material objects, and "[m]ost systems use (often proprietary) plastics, but a few use metal 'toner.' The latter is turned solid by a variety of high-tech means, from sintering with lasers (for simple objects) to using high-energy electron beams to melt the metal into dense, high-strength parts."

However, the recent development of two-material printing has opened the possibility for further advances, such as implementing multiple material inputs and enabling the use of electroactive and electronic polymers. Fast Company notes "the tantalizing possibility of being able to print out basic electronic products — sensors, RFID-type tags, even simple communication devices — by the middle of the next decade."

Desktop manufacturing has a promising future, but the effects of this technology are already being felt today, particularly in the acceleration of design processes. As Small Business Labs states, "3-D printers have already had a significant impact on product design and development. Prototypes can be built quickly and cheaply. Users can test and comment earlier and more often in the development process. And problems can be caught prior to manufacturing."

According to data from NextGen Research, an emerging technologies research firm, the global market for 3-D printing systems, services and materials is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5 percent, reaching $782.6 million by 2013.

The majority of the forecast growth in the 3-D printing and desktop manufacturing industries is motivated by smaller, less expensive machines coming onto the market for commercial use. A recent University of Texas at Austin report titled Roadmap for Additive Manufacturing, claims that in the additive manufacturing industry, "[t]he most rapidly growing segment is for low-cost 3D printers, or concept modelers, suitable for the office environment."

Making 3-D printers feasible to purchase and implement in the office or at home may be the most significant development in bringing the technology into mainstream use. While there are many variants available for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, Desktop Engineering mentions over a dozen new 3-D printer models in a more modest pricing range, the cheapest of which is under $5,000.

In addition to being less expensive, printers are also becoming more compact, but "[w]hile these systems are now sleek enough to park next to a favorite 2-D printer, make no mistake, you'll be building true 3-D parts."

The combination of smaller size and lower expense may be crucial for putting 3-D printing and desktop engineering technology within the reach of design engineers, as well as do-it-yourselfers. Before long, we may be designing and manufacturing our own components and prototypes from the comfort of a home office.


Rapid Prototyping Shows Few Signs of Slowing

Print 3-D Objects at Home

Eccentric Engineering


Fab@Home: Choose Your Fabber Fab@Home, April 29, 2009

The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution by Jamais Cascio Fast Company, July 14, 2009

Desktop Manufacturing for Under $5,000 Small Business Labs, Nov. 3, 2008

3D Printing NextGen Research (Allied Business Intelligence), April 27, 2009

Roadmap for Additive Manufacturing: Identifying the Future of Freeform Processing by David L. Bourell, Ming C. Leu and David W. Rosen University of Texas at Austin's Laboratory of Freeform Manufacturing (via Wohlers Associates), 2009

Desktop Manufacturing Moves in with the Furniture by Pamela J. Waterman Desktop Engineering, May 3, 2009

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