3D Printing Comes of Age

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Despite significant advancements in digital prototyping that digitally simulate products to validate form, fit and function, eventually physical models must be built. These 3D models enable designers to verify that the product will function as intended and meet the needs of the customer before committing to costly production runs. Creating these physical prototypes used to be a time-consuming and costly endeavor, often creating a bottleneck in the development process.

Today the game has changed and quite significantly. With the advent of affordable 3D printing technology, design teams can now quickly create physical prototypes with little disruption to the development process and do so right in their offices. These rapid prototyping (RP) machines, called 3D printers, are capable of producing parts and products that are very lost cost and high enough quality to provide design teams with not only working models, but also “one-off” designs and limited small production runs of actual products.

Manufacturers bring RP capabilities in-house

The approach to creating these rapid prototypes is called Additive Manufacturing (AM), which is the process of making 3D solid objects from a digital model by laying down successive layers of material. Not long ago, RP machines were prohibitively expensive, putting them out of range for most organizations. As a result, design teams would send their CAD data to outside RP service bureaus when they needed physical prototypes built, robbing them of valuable cycle time.

Today prices of 3D printers have plummeted, with models now being sold for as little as $500 and very capable ones available for under $1,000. Though they are yet considering “mass market,” more and more manufacturers are bringing 3D printing technology in-house to lessen the time constraints and costs associated with traditional physical prototyping.

3D Printers: Game changer for CAD users?

The impact of putting 3D printing capabilities in the hands of CAD users is significant. Never before have CAD professionals had the ability to “self-produce” products. They would concentrate on the design of the product, and then hand it off to the shop floor for manufacturing, limiting the opportunities for designers to capitalize on their own work.

Imagine a world where the designer of the product, the CAD user, could sell products directly to consumers who could then “make” the product at home on their own personal 3D printers. In this scenario, 3D printing could provide a legion of CAD professionals with an outlet for their own CAD designs. It could also spawn the development and distribution of smaller, highly focused products that can’t be mass-produced economically by traditional means.

Looking into the future of 3D printing

The future of 3D printing is somewhat limitless. Expectant parents in Japan can now get a 3D model of their fetus. The models are created using MRI data that is converted into a 3D image, and then produced on a 3D printer. Though not cheap, approximately $1,200, the company is now offering patients a 3D model of the face of the fetus for half that price.

Another interesting application is highlighted in a recent Times magazine article, “We Can Almost Print New Organs Using 3D Stem Cells.” It covers the topic of biofabrication: assembling the essential cellular building blocks of organs using the mechanical exactness of computer-driven, 3D printers. A team of researchers in Scotland recently announced that they had successfully used an inkjet-style printer to craft an organic 3D object.

While not an actual organ, these scientists claim they have been able to cleared a crucial hurdle: getting human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), prized for their ability to become cells of any tissue type, to survive the printing process. While we’re still a long ways away from being able to “print” out human organs, scientists believe this experiment is a momentous step closer and certainly validates the unlimited potential of 3D printing.

In the shorter term, 3D printing will provide manufacturers with a more time- and cost-effective way to design and deliver the increasingly customized products that customers are demanding of them. The advent of 3D printing will also have a significant impact on the manufacturing industry by opening up new markets and disrupting existing ones by enabling nearly anyone who can create 3D CAD models to become a manufacturer.

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