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Getting Dimensional

Developments on the 3D printing front.

In my column about a year ago on the topic of 3D printing (“3D Printing: Putting the 'Additive' in Manufacturing,” June 2013), I wrote about our company’s purchase of a 3D printer. This was at the peak of all the hyperbole about how 3D printing was going to totally change the world. As it turns out, the world is still pretty much the same – the technology hasn’t really affected civilization as we know it. It has not yet been disruptive to intellectual property rights or manufacturing, nor has it produced the widespread menace of printed guns.

And our own company hasn’t changed as a result of bringing the printer in-house – at least not substantially, not yet.

We have utilized our 3D printer, a Cubify Cubex, to print prototypes of products that we’re developing for use in exhibit structures. While the finished product is manufactured using plastic extruding and injection molding, our 3D printer was able to make prototype parts that are functionally identical to the final product – enabling us to test different configurations before we spend tens of thousands of dollars buying final dies and molds. We’ll bring the product to market when our intellectual property is fully protected.

Have we had any 3D “print-for-pay” jobs – creating products we actually sell? Yes. The most interesting such job so far was an artificial knee. A physician had developed a new prosthetic knee, but wanted a model he could show potential investors. It takes about 10 jobs like this to pay for an entry-level printer like ours.

Given the current technology, I would recommend an entry-level 3D printer if your shop has the need to build visual and/or functional prototypes for product development. As I said a year ago, we justified the ROI of 3D capability based on our internal needs.

But a couple of recent 3D developments have especially garnered my interest of late.

Scanning in 3D
In 2014 I predict there will be at least two truly revolutionary developments in 3D printing. These developments will be disruptive. And importantly, those of us in the digital-printing arena are likely better prepared than people in other industries to join the revolution. The reason: We’re familiar with a great deal of the knowledge and skills that will be necessary for success with the new technology and in the emerging marketplace for these products.

The first technology is 3D scanning. Just as with flat printing, before you can print something in 3D, you need a digital file. You can either create that file in a 3D design program, buy the image, or scan it.

We participated in the Kick Starter program and late last year we ordered a Fuel3D handheld scanner as well as a software package called MeshUp (fuel-3d.com). Delivery is projected to be in September or October of this year. I am betting with my wallet this is going to be revolutionary. Affordable, very-high resolution 3D scanning has been the missing link in 3D print-production services, and is what has been preventing 3D print from really taking off. We want to be out front when it does.

The Fuel3D scanner will also have some advantages for other UV-cured dimensional printing we do. For instance, in October of last year we produced a UV-cured print with 21 layers of UV-cured ink on an aluminum composite sheet. It was an “original” piece the artist created on his computer. A “one of one,” this print sold at auction for $270,000!

Once we have this 3D-scanning technology in-house, we should be able to replicate the brushstrokes on oil-painted canvas. In the same scan, we’ll get the color information along with the dimensional information. We’ll also be able to replicate textural surfaces like wood – again, perfectly registering the color print to the texture. This scanner will also complement our 3D routing capability.

Like so many of you, we’re ready for 3D technology – because if you have a UV-cured printer or a router, you currently own the hardware to produce dimensional output.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, scanning services were a dependable revenue stream for us. Of course, with the proliferation of affordable scanners and digital photography, scanning for pay has dried up over the past decade. I think 3D scanning will provide a return of this income opportunity in the future. The revolutionary part comes from the ability to 3D scan in very high resolution, scan very large objects like automobiles, and being able to scan in color. I can’t wait.

A change in the print game
There’s also a revolution on the 3D-printing side of things – it’s the availability of a 3D printer that prints in CMYK and with multiple materials. This game-changing machine is the Objet500 Connex3 from Stratasys, recently launched by the company at the Solidworks World event (solidworks.com) in San Diego.

This is a “multi-material” printer – rubber and plastic are used as build materials. By this, we don’t mean that either material can be printed; rather, this printer will print with both of these materials simultaneously. The rubber and plastic can be mixed in the same print to produce a part with varying degrees of pliability, from rigid plastic to a rubber-like material. Into this magic mixture is injected CMYK color – creating an entire spectrum that ranges in opacity from opaque to translucent colors (and clear). You have to see and touch the finished piece to understand how truly revolutionary this technology is.

The Connex3 can print 16-micron layers with accuracy as high as 0.1 mm. To put this into perspective, our current 3D printer prints in 125-, 250-, and 500-micron layers. That is like our first digital printers having 300-dpi resolution and drops the size of dimes, and now printing at 1500 dpi, with drops down to 3.6 picoliters. The 16-micron layer results in incredibly smooth surfaces, thin walls, and very complex geometries. The build size on this beast is a generous 19.3 x 15.4 x 7.9 inches, compared to 10.82 x 10.43 x 9.49 inches on our current printer.

How much? Well, therein lies the rub. The Connex3 is being introduced for about $330,000. Plus, there’s the build-material costs: For the Connex3, it comes to about $136 a pound. So not only do you have to lay down several hundred thousand dollars (not foreign in our industry), but it’s expensive as hell to feed it. So the price for this piece of hardware might be out of reach for us at the moment (I am rummaging through all my couch cushions as I write this); but my market research might justify the purchase based on projected ROI.

It’s all so familiar
One of the most intriguing things in looking at this new 3D technology is that so much of what you’ll find here is already familiar to those of us in the wide-format industry.

Think about it: This equipment is digital; it involves scanning; it features CMYK color; there is an XYZ axis, and it’s topped off with UV curing. At our shop, we’ve found that our staff has been able to quickly embrace the 3D technology because of this familiarity. For example, we set up our 3D printer ourselves and were producing prints within an hour. 3D printing is beginning to look a lot like what we do in the flat. But instead of jetting drops of ink onto flat vinyl, the Connex3 jets layers of liquid photopolymer onto a build tray.

As I finish this column, a company that also markets into the wide-format print space – Hewlett-Packard – has just announced it is indeed pursuing 3D printing and will outline its plans by the end of the year with an official announcement. “We’re going to focus on the business side of 3D printing first. The bigger market will be the enterprise space for parts and prototypes,” said HP CEO Meg Whitman in its annual stockholders meeting.

3D scanning and printing may not be for everyone in our industry, but it’s definitely worth looking into.

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