Reimagining 3D

Don’t count this technology out just yet.

I’ve written two columns on the advances in 3D printing and our company’s small dive into additive manufacturing in the past five years or so. (Did you know you can find past work from all the Big Picture columnists by simply searching for their names at bigpicture.net? You can see how well many of us predicted the future.) We’ve had a 3D printer and CAD software for more than four years and 3D scanning for more than two, but we recently decided to crank it up a notch. Our Massivit 1800 was delivered in September, and a Mimaki 3DUJ-553 arrived the first week in October. 

I’m not going to pitch these machines to you, but I want you to consider the disruption their technology will introduce in both 2D and 3D print markets. I also want to explore why it’s important for those of us in wide-format 2D printing to pay attention to this new world of printing opportunities. Finally, we’ll look globally at a shift in focus in the 3D industry that is reflected in how we approach the education of our future printers, designers, and engineers. 

Etiology

What’s unique about both of these machines is that, unlike many 3D printers on the market, they have their origins in the business of wide-format 2D printing.  

Massivit is an Israeli startup with a fascinating background built by a team of executives with companies like Scitex and Scodix on their resumes. And it goes without saying that Mimaki is a fixture of our 2D print industry. 

So, how do these companies’ 2D roots manifest in their 3D developments? Typically, you think of 3D printing as focused on engineering, prototyping, and short-run manufacturing. The prints themselves are typically too small and the printers too slow to make much of an impact in our industry. Our existing 3D printer has been used almost exclusively for making prototype parts for our internal needs. When someone says “3D printing,” applications like vehicle wraps, point-of-purchase, window displays, signage, tradeshow exhibits, or interior décor don’t usually come to mind. But, those applications are where these companies have their roots, so it’s only natural that these printers are focused on and have developed specific technology to serve in this market. 

You and I are the target customers for both of these machines. Our existing 2D print customers are the potential end users. This made it easier for us to decide on a major push into 3D printing. We did our market research by reaching out to our existing customer base and gauging their reaction to sample prints and pictures. Based on the course we have chosen, you can guess the reactions were good. 

The List of Demands

So what technological advancements would be required to serve the wide-format digital 2D print markets? Size is the first thing that comes to mind, as the word “wide” would suggest. The 3DUJ-553 models objects up to 20 x 20 x 12 inches – a large build envelop by historical 3D standards. The Massivit is truly massive, with output up to 69 x 57 x 45 inches. Both of these printers produce objects large enough to satisfy our core customers. 

Fuse deposition modeling (FDM) is the most common method of 3D printing, where a single-color plastic or plastic-like filament is melted and deposited in layers to create a model. This is a long way from how we all print. Both of the units in question here utilize UV printing – and it’s a pretty good guess that this choice and expertise was influenced by the companies’ 2D printing histories. The 3DUJ-553 uses a liquid acrylic in six colors, and the 1800 uses a single-color UV-cured acrylic gel. And UV curing technology leads to the next technical advantage, which is speed. 

The 3DUJ-553 is significantly faster than traditional FDM, and the 1800 is in an entirely different league than any other 3D printer as far as production speed. This will be critical to the success of our industries crossing paths – especially if and when more machines enter this niche of the market; we don’t have time to wait, and neither do our customers.

A New Face for 3D CAD

These two printers represent an evolution, maybe a revolution, in 3D printing. This transition prompts us to take a fresh look at 3D CAD software. Because 3D printing has historically focused on an engineering type of output, software has also been geared in that direction. 

But imagine you have a client who wants a life-size pink flamingo for their store window display. Your 3D CAD designer and software are focused on designing gears. You have a 3D print system capable of producing a life-size flamingo, but you need to design a 3D rendering of the bird before you can print it. A flamingo is not a gear.

Enter the new world of 3D CAD that is represented by programs like Mudbox, ZBrush, Rhino, or even Blender. If traditional 3D CAD is engineering in design, this new generation of CAD programs represents art of design – which brings me to an observation about how this corresponds to what is happening in our educational institutions and our society. 

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the acronym STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We want our kids to grow up and have resources available to them so they can excel in STEM if they have the aptitude and desire. But there is a new movement in education under the acronym STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art of Design, and Math. Turns out many STEM students have a talent for art that may have been suppressed by not having the opportunity to express it during their STEM-focused education. This new emphasis in the art of design is what is being interjected into 3D printing by these new printers and the accompanying artistic 3D CAD software. STEAM may result in more elegant and artful design influencing the technical side of our world. We have talked to engineering-focused CAD designers who have been learning these more artfully focused programs, and it has certainly influenced the quality of their designs. 

Always Evolving

We’re looking at the beginning of a trend in 3D printing. It will herald the adoption of more artful 3D printing by industries like ours, as well as in medicine, education, interior design, and other disciplines. And just because these printers can produce artful and colorful shapes doesn’t mean they have lost the ability to produce engineering and manufacturing models. In some instances, they may even do the job better. 

The transition will also help ancillary technologies thrive. There will be greater demand for 3D scanning once better ways to print these scans become more commonplace. The ability to print photorealistic or life-size people and objects will promote growth in the field of photogrammetry – that is, the scientific use of photographs to measure distances between objects in surveying and mapping – including 360-degree 3D photogrammetry booths, drone-captured photogrammetry, and opportunities for photographers. At the finishing end, monochromatic printers like the 1800 will open jobs for print finishers to prepare the surfaces and paint the objects. 

The printer operation itself does not seem to be more difficult than running a wide-format machine. The greatest challenge of adapting to a 3D print world will likely be finding the software and the people with the ability to operate it. We are developing our ability to design 3D in high-resolution color and huge builds, fix these types of customer files to make them print-ready, and run the files through each printer’s unique “slicer” program, the 3D equivalent of RIP software. 

In our almost 24 years of operation, we have evolved by being an early adopter of new technologies. This began with dye sublimation, expanded-gamut printers, CNC routers, lasers, and UV printers. We see 3D printers that lend themselves to our markets as just another evolution of our company, and a way of expanding our capabilities for our customers. Do you?

Check out some of Pictographics' first 3D prints below.

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