Why 3D Printing Is Here to Stay

Posted on

3D Printer PicImagine saying, “Computer, chocolate bar.” And one appears.

Today’s 3D printing technology differs sharply from the fictional replicator process that feeds the starship crew in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But that hasn’t stopped 3D printed food from grabbing a lot of media attention (e.g., the salt on NPR, Digits on WSJ.com, and Austin American-Statesman). At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, 3D Systems revealed its restaurant-grade ChefJet printers. Chocolate and snack manufacturers continued the trend by wooing South by Southwest Interactive 2014 attendees with customized chocolate bars and Oreo cookies.

The applications of 3D printing extend far beyond these mouth-watering novelties, though. Fashion designers and auto manufacturing engineers also use 3D printing technology to lower the costs of the design process. Recent drops in prices for the printers mean educators, entrepreneurs, and small businesses can now afford these technologies too. No one would be reading about the possibility of printing pasta at home otherwise.

3D printers use a range of processes to “print” items based on 3D designs. The two oldest techniques were patented in the 1980s:

  • 3D Systems Founder Charles Hull invented stereolithography after realizing ultraviolet-light-hardened resins had the potential to make models. With this process, a UV laser creates an object by curing a photopolymer as it traces layers as small as .05 mm one after another.
  • Scott Crump conceived of fused-deposition modeling (FDM), a material extrusion technique, when making a toy for his daughter. FDM involves squeezing a semiliquid material out of a computer-controlled printer head. While this process started out using thermoplastics, today extrusion-based printers can utilize most materials used in injection molds, including cheese, chocolate, and concrete.

Many more techniques have been developed since that time. Enough so, in fact, that ASTM International, a global standards body, got involved in trying to clarify standardized additive manufacturing process terminology in 2012.

Early models attracted automotive industry customers despite having a six-figure price tag. Carmakers used the printers to more quickly test out part designs, a practice known today as rapid prototyping. Even though the machines required a hefty investment, printing parts in the lab cut research timelines by weeks or months by eliminating the need to send plans to a machinist.

Another technological advance took place in the late 1980s, in concert with the development of stereolithography and other 3D printing processes. Computer-aided design (CAD) software moved from experimental labs and became commercially available around the same time. Purchasing CAD was cheaper in the 1980s and 1990s than buying the first- and second-generation 3D printers. With total costs in the neighborhood of a million dollars, large government and corporate buyers remained the principal customers for additive manufacturing hardware and software until the turn of the 21st Century.

By the 2000s—thanks in part to advances in CAD and increasing use of rapid prototyping in hardware and software development—the costs for both were going down as consumer interest in a wider range of electronics grew. That decade, many of the original patents for 3D printing processes began to expire as Hull’s did in 2004 and Crump’s did in 2009. A number of new do-it-yourself (DIY) and open source communities got involved in building printer kits, printers, and coding frameworks. Commercial manufacturers that had held a temporary monopoly introduced new models at much lower price points in moves meant to capture some of the newly diversifying additive manufacturing marketplace.

Owning all the tools and supplies needed to engage in iterative design is now within reach for small businesses. In fact, a few months ago, Sealevel purchased our first 3D printer. We are experimenting with ways to use this technology in a variety of ways during the product development process, and we’ve already experienced benefits in prototyping mechanical fixtures for new designs.

Given the rate of rapid advancement happening in this technology, we expect the impact of 3D printers on the product development process to increase quickly. The ability to develop rapid, low cost prototypes could be a game-changer, shortening the standard development cycle by as much as half the current time. Imagine the competitive advantage that can be gained.

Let us know how you expect 3D printers to change the product development process and how it may affect you.