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Getting Dimensional

(May 2014) posted on Tue May 06, 2014

Developments on the 3D printing front.

click an image below to view slideshow

By Craig Miller

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.