"Perspectives", a monthly column authored by
Todd Grimm for "Time-Compression Technologies."

This column was published in the
April/May 2004 issue. For more great articles,
visit the "Time-Compression Technologies'"
Web site at www.timecompress.com.

3-D Printers: Mini RP Systems or Expensive Gadgets?

Defining the 3-D printer.

Today, 3-D printers are growing in popularity. However, as the RP industry realized in the 1990s, early success does not guarantee sustained rapid growth over the long haul. Continued or accelerated growth in 3-D printers will hinge upon the industry's answer to the question "Are these mini RP machines or are they expensive gadgets?"

What Is 3-D Printing?

The definition of 3-D printing has evolved. What once described all RP machines is now a very specific class of RP devices. Individually, price, process or size does not qualify a system as a 3-D printer. Instead, it is the combination of these qualities, in conjunction with the operating environment, which makes an RP machine a 3-D printer.

The basis for the definition of 3-D printing stems from the vision of prototyping devices that operate so transparently that they mimic the process of printing letters and documents. While these cost effective devices have yet to reach this pinnacle, they are getting closer. As a result, the definition of 3-D printing borrows from that of a 2-D inkjet or laser printer.

3-D printers offer a combination of:

  • Affordability
  • Easy operation
  • Simple maintenance
  • Small size
  • Suitability for the office

In addition, 3-D printers are, or will be, networked devices that are available to everyone in the organization that needs to translate 3-D CAD data into physical form. Like the 2-D printer, they will be computer peripherals available at the click of the mouse. No system meets all of the criteria found in the 3-D printer definition. While some systems are very close, there are limitations that detract from 2-D printer-like operation-namely suitability for the office and transparency of operation. However, in time these deficiencies will be overcome.

The 3-D Printer Versus the Enterprise System

So, are 3-D printers mini RP machines? To answer that, we have to look at the high-end systems-enterprise prototyping centers. Obviously, there will be major differences between 3-D printers and enterprise class machines. If there were not, there would be no market for systems that range from $100,000 to $800,000. And since there is continued demand for enterprise class systems, there must be some advantages.

In general, enterprise class systems differ from 3-D printers as follows:

  • Size: Bigger in both build envelope and machine dimensions
  • Materials: Wider material selection
  • Location: Not for the office; best suited for a lab or shop floor
  • Operation: Require expertise that comes from a dedicated or part-time staff
  • Control: Provide robust user control of build parameters
  • Centralized: Resource for the entire company (enterprise), not the individual or department

The enterprise class system offers greater latitude in capability, higher throughput and wider selection of materials; however, with this advanced capability, these systems will often demand more from those that operate them.

For easy operation, the 3-D printer has simplified data processing. In some cases, the build preparation software is a scaled down (fewer user parameters) version of that for the enterprise class machine. While this makes quick work of STL and build preparation, it removes controls from the user. For example, 3-D printers offer a single layer thickness. Enterprise systems provide layers of 0.001, 0.004 or 0.010 in., which permit the operator to balance time and quality.

Another tangible difference is the size of the build envelope. 3-D printers have a build area of 8 x 8 x 10 in. (or smaller). Meanwhile, enterprise class systems start at 10 x 10 x 10 in. and expand to 40 x 30 x 24 in. The smaller build envelope limits both the size of the prototypes and the annual throughput.

What to Expect

As shown in the January/February issue (Rapid Prototyping Benchmark of 3-D Printers, page 24), these devices are quite capable. Depending on the system you select, you can have blazing speed, good accuracy, strong materials, great surface finish or hassle-free build preparation. But do not expect to get all of this from a single 3-D printer. Even so, the performance of these systems is far from being that of an expensive gadget.

3-D printers are perfect for their primary purpose-early evaluation of product designs. This means rapid-fire iterations for concept modeling, or quick evaluations of form and fit. The goal in these applications is to print prototypes early and often to discover changes in the initial stage of the design process. However, do not limit yourself to the concept of concept modeling. Some 3-D printers perform well in advanced applications such as pattern building and functional testing.

In every case, 3-D printers allow you to process the STL file, prepare the build file and release the job in just a few minutes. This efficiency and simplicity gives a designer unprecedented access to prototyping technology. While some technologies are slower than a comparable enterprise system, users will find that the entire process is quicker overall. This is true because of the easy front-end and the self-service nature of the process. Instead of relying on others for prototypes-waiting in their queues and living by their schedules-individuals can build a prototype with only one consideration, "Is the 3-D printer busy?"

Even though the 3-D printer is a capable device, it cannot satisfy all prototyping demands. Many companies will use the 3-D printer for all of their early needs. Once the design progresses and the demands of the prototype increase, they then turn to an enterprise system.

What the Future Holds

Far from being a mature category, we can expect exciting developments in 3-D printing in the years to come. Some advances will improve on the current state of technology while others will overcome limitations.

In a statement made by Hewlett-Packard in 2003, the company indicated that it was working on products for RP applications. This news sent a jolt through the industry, and many foresaw the release of a $1,000 3-D printer. While prices will continue to decrease, the $1,000 unit is unlikely in the short-term. Instead, expect to see system prices decline and stabilize at $5,000 throughout the next five to ten years.

Below this price point, everything about the business model changes, including distribution. When a technology sells for less than $5,000, it becomes unprofitable for a value-added reseller (VAR) to offer the product. At lower prices, products migrate to retail outlets, company stores or online sales. The shift is major, and system manufacturers will be in no hurry to change every aspect of their business, nor will users be comfortable buying a system from the store shelf and relying on a 1-800 number for pay-as-you go phone support.

Today's 3-D printer has two limitations, compatibility with the office and demand for postprocessing. While 3-D printers fit in the office, many are just a bit too noisy, a tad too hot or a little too messy. This is a relatively simple fix that will be achieved in short order. The bigger challenge is postprocessing. Every RP device requires some post build operations, including powder or support structure removal. These processes are not ideally suited for the office. Eliminating postprocessing will be a challenging, but necessary, advance in the progression to transparent computer peripheral.

An exciting change for the RP industry is that the 3-D printer has made the technology available to an increasing number of educational institutions. With the low purchase price and easy operation, colleges, technical schools and even high schools are implementing RP into the educational curriculum. As these RP educated students enter the workforce, they will promote the use of the technology within companies of all sizes. For years, the industry has stated that the biggest barrier to growth in RP is education. The 3-D printer is tearing down this barrier, and this will result in increased demand for, and application of, RP.

The technology will continue to improve. There will be a combination of new features and functionality designed specifically for the 3-D printer and a trickling down of advanced features previously reserved for the enterprise class system. Three-dimensional printers will get better and more companies will implement them.

Future advancements, lower costs, a growing number of individuals educated in RP and a larger population of users; that is what the future holds. In a few years, you will have access to systems that are as transparent as a 2-D printer. While improvements are on the horizon, do not let time pass you buy. Today's systems are more than capable of delivering big returns.

Although $20,000 to $40,000 is still a sizable investment, these low-cost systems have minimized the financial risk of entering into RP. And remember, even if you discover that you need an enterprise class system, your 3-D printer will continue to churn out concept and engineering review models to protect you and your company from the release of a flawed design. I believe that the 3-D printer is a practical, powerful tool that you can use for many product development projects. Mini rapid prototyping machine, that is my answer.

©2004 Communication Technologies, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted from Time-Compression Technologies magazine. Contents cannot be reprinted without permission from the publisher.


Contact information:
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