Saturday, 22 December 2012

Ford seeds low cost 3D Printers throughout its design shops

An article published by GigaOM and reproduced in BusinessWeek claims that Ford Motor Co intends to put low cost 3D Printers near the workspace of every engineer, in order to encourage their creativity, design thinking and prototyping. 

Exactly how many 3D printers are already inside Ford is unclear. Engineers always love new tools.

"A Ford spokesman... while it’s tough to give an exact count of the number of employees who have the 3D printers, the company has multiple locations at the company’s Dearborn headquarters where hundreds of engineers have access. And at the carmaker’s Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto, all employees have Makerbots. The most popular areas they are in use today at Ford are in the Vehicle Design and Infotronics group."

If this is a trend, expect other global manufacturers to discover that a simple Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printer is a good enough tool to give to engineers. 

With FDM prices falling, and capabilities rising, is this a market? If so, good news for MakerBot Industries and the rest. 

Source of the story

Friday, 21 December 2012

Draw an iPad case and have it made in Paris

The number of ways businesses are going to allow consumers to customize products is going to explode. Trying to teach them to be 3D designers is not going to work. In this video, the simple act of drawing on a printed layout, and then scanning it, enables the materialization of an attractive iPad cover.

3DSVP is the first 3D print shop to open a physical 'walk in' store in Paris.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Inside Moddler, a 3D Print Model Shop

Grab yourself a $250,000 3D printer, 15 years of experience in design, and you too can do what Moddler are doing.

Listen to how John Vegher explains the 3D printing process using an Objet Eden500V.

He comments: "Another area of innovation is what everyone wants, a printer in their room [this big] so that you can print out whatever and wherever you want. I don't think that that's happen in any high resolution way or any really high quality way for .. decades ... but it's going to happen".

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

MAQET 3D Printed Collectibles

Last month I designed a robot model using an online tool called MyRobotNation. A few days later it turned up in the post. It was great fun, rather expensive, but I love my 3D printed robot. I showed it to my nephew and he immediately did the same.

My niece does like robots, but is not obsessed with them. Sensing she was feeling left out, I began hunting for a 3D print service that would appeal directly to girls. So it came as a great relief that I found MAQET and their impossibly cute series called "Emily the Strange".

Like all good designs, Emily comes with a 'Make It Real' button. I do think we are going to see a lot of 'Make' buttons coming to a device near you.

Founder of MAQET Keith Cottingham is a San Francisco-based artist whose work fuses computer art, photography, animation and sculpture. Keith believes the world of mass-produced collectibles has lost its imagination.

Designing My Emily consisted of choosing a pose, expression, starting patterns for her clothes, and then using various paint and 'stamp' tools to decorate her. (left) The system also offered to allow me to import my own art work.

More 3D printed collectible art here

Technical detail
As with MyRobotNation, MAQET collectibles are materialized on ZCorp 3D printers. Unlike MyRobotNation the models are finished in an attractive glaze.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Go Green with 3D Printing say Melotte

A company in Belgium called Melotte claims that 3D printing has considerable ecological and economic benefits.

The company has published an infographic with startling data about dental production processes with and without additive digital manufacturing. (right)

Is this hype, or real? We need to know more about the basis of the claim and the research approach used.

Others are also claiming significant benefits.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, additive manufacturing on average uses 50 percent less energy and saves up to 90 percent on materials costs compared to traditional manufacturing. Because one prints only the desired product, it greatly reduce the amount of materials used, and the energy required for manufacturing.

3D Printing plant
Furthermore, since additive manufacturing involves sending data around the world via the internet, rather than sending physical materials, shipping, packaging and storage is reduced to almost nil, which dramatically reduces energy use.

Lastly, the ability to cheaply print complex designs leads to more efficient designs and products, reducing the “footprint” of a product, and often strengthening it in the process. All of these factors together contribute to a dramatic reduction in waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

TeamPlatform releases new features

We've highlighted TeamPlatform before, a promising cloud based service for building collaborative, customer and partner facing processes for executing any 3D project.

Suitable for small or larger companies, the new features include:

  • New WebGL Viewer provides instant STL download of parts, assembly tree integration, and enhanced performance and supports over 65+ 3D data formats including 3D Scan, Mesh,  Point Cloud, CATIA, NX, Inventor, SolidWorks, ProE/Creo, IGES and STEP. 
  • Embedding a custom form and file uploader into your company’s website couldn’t be easier. Once a visitor uploads files and submits the form, the files and user-entered data are transferred securely to your predefined project workspace in TeamPlatform. 
More details here 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Materializing large 3D Printed objects

What do you do if the object you wish to 3D print is simply too large for your build chamber?

PRotos X400
Print size has been a limitation in all additive manufacturing processes, and is most acute in the 'build chamber' limitation of hobby 3D printers.

When the Makerbot 2 was introduced the company proudly announced a larger build chamber of 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm. That's still quite small. In similar vane Ultimaker boasts an "extremely large build chamber" of 21 x 21 x 20.5 cm.

What if you need larger? Well, there's the PRotos X400 designed by a RepRap group in Germany. It still only manages 40 x 40 x 35 cm. What if you need larger?

Recently, Bre Pettis CEO of Makerbot showed a sculpture of a horse head printed on a Replicator. How was it done? It was printed in parts, and glued together. In other words it was assembled, a rather traditional manufacturing process. That's cheating? Isn't the point of additive manufacturing to cut out assembly steps? Not only that, but the designer of the sculpture had the tortuous task of modelling each part separately but so that they would later fit together. Sounds like a lot of work.

In another story of large 3D printed objects, engineers at Stratasys and Autodesk showed an enormous colored model (with moving parts) of an entire aircraft engine - full scale. While the industrial printer employed was much larger than a Makerbot or an Ultimaker, even they could not print the engine as a a single object. Once again, the team 'cheated' and it was assembled from parts. Perhaps assembly is not so much of a problem?

Large prints have always been a requirement in additive manufacturing process. Suppose you wanted to produce the accurate contour of a car body. In a process called mammoth stereolithography a single part can realized up to 4 meters in length.

It is not inconceivable that larger industrial printers will appear in the future, but as all engineers know we will reach the point of diminishing returns ... although I also suspect that marketeers will continue to boast via stories of larger and larger prints. They do make for good publicity. But when the engineering constraints kick in, it will be back to cheating and good old-fashioned assembly.

CAD/CAM designers know all too well how to model parts that can later be assembled. It's quite an art. For the rest of us, could software come to the rescue? Could a software tool take a single 3D model - designed as such - and then post process it into parts that could be individually printed, and later assembled?

Chopper is experimental software for partitioning a 3D model into parts. The software formulates a number of desirable criteria for the partition, including ease of assembly, minimizing the number of components required, creating unobtrusive seams and ensuring structural integrity. It combines computer-aided partitioning, with user guidance.

More info on Chopper here

Chopper really is remarkable. Until the day such software is commonplace, we'll need larger and larger 3D printers in order to print out the humongous objects of our imagination. So its comforting to know that Objet have announced the Objet1000 printer.

So if you need to print a single object up to 1000 x 800 x 500 mm in volume, and with multiple materials (color, rigid/soft, opaque/clear), and with moving parts and in one operation, there really isn't anywhere else to go. Take a look at this marketing video:

Forbes go inside Shapeways

Shapeways believe that home 3D printers won't effect their service business, because people will print rough copies of their designs at home, and then will choose to print in higher quality for the final part, via a service like Shapeways.

It certainly true that people will become better designers by being able to make mistakes, and iterate quickly and cheaply, using their home printer.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Formlabs full steam ahead despite patent lawsuit

Despite a lawsuit from 3D Systems concerning potential patent infringement, Formlabs are moving ahead and have announced on their blog that low cost, high resolution stereolithography will make its way to your desktop.

"At Formlabs, we’re designers, engineers, and makers just like you. We all want freedom to design. Freedom to innovate. Freedom to create. That’s why we’re moving full steam ahead."

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Soil Scientists are using 3D Printing

While the consumer, art, aerospace and automotive applications of 3D Printing get all of the media attention, there are also many applications of what might be called the 'Long Tail'.

The 'Long Tail' is all about making the things you need, that you simply cannot get anywhere else, and which no one else needs.

In a paper by the Soil Science Society of America, a team describe how, using a 3D printer, they are able to create specialized soil-science equipment. One example is a permeameter. This device measures the hydraulic conductivity of soils.

Because complexity comes for free in 3D printing, the team were able to produce parts containing, for example, non-concentric structures and intricate conduits ... things very hard to make otherwise.

3D printed equipment for Soil Science
While such equipment is available off-the-shelf, those standard products would not give the soil scientists any ability to adapt their equipment to reflect new experimental methods in the field. What  if the soil scientists needed something really special or simply not available off-the-shelf?

It would be too expensive for them to place a contract for a custom part with a traditional manufacturer. To 'tool up' the supplier would need the scientists to place an order for hundreds or even thousands of units!

With 3D printing the scientists can model what they need on the computer, and press 'Make'.

Another advantage of 3D printing in scientific work is that the 3D model file can be shared on the Internet, allowing other scientists to improve on it. Even if other teams did not need to change the design, they would still be able to download it just by clicking on a web link, and then print it for themselves, locally.

Simple 3D printers are also portable. It is not inconceivable to take a 3D printer into the field, or on expedition, and print any parts needed on-site.

More info here

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Electrospining finds its place in 3D printing

I once asked if Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) counted as "3D printing?" According to at least one media story it does. I am now asking if electrospinning also counts?

Once again, a story connecting "3D printing" and an esoteric manufacturing technique is making the news.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have apparently "3D printed" a material with the characteristics of human cartilage making it more amenable to surviving and even repairing itself in the body.

The experimental 'bio printer' combines two processes, ink jet deposition and electrospinning.

Printing bio materials from gels using inkjet technology is well understood. The difference here is that the electrospinning technique was added in order to produce porous and flexible 'mats' of synthetic polymer.

Electrospinning uses an electrical charge to draw very fine fibers from a liquid.  It is similar to electrospraying and conventional dry spinning of fibers.

It is unclear from published reports whether the ink jet and electrospinning processes were really combined in a new hybrid technology. The ink jet component of the experiment may have been limited to deposition of the living cells in amongst the fibrous layers creating by the electrospinning.

More info here

Is paper the new plastic filament at Staples?

"3D printing" refers to a slew of very different technologies. They share only one thing in common, a layer-by-layer approach to building an object.

In one process, plastic is squirted from a hot nozzle which moves in the X and Y axis, while the platform upon which the object sits moves in Z. It's called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and comes in a few variations. It's the process used in most hobby printers because of its simplicity.

In another process, a laser beam flits across the surface of a liquid in wild and rapid movements. Where it touches the liquid a layer of the object is solidified. By moving the container in which the layer is being drawn, a complete 3D object emerges as if by magic! It's called stereolithography (SLA) and has previously been very expensive. However, new entrants like Formlabs will eventually be successful and prices will drop to allow all designers to have a unit on their desk.

In a very different process developed by mcor technologies a ream of standard A4 paper is used. Each sheet is fed into the machine, and laminated to the layer beneath using a water-based adhesive. Glue droplets are placed only where they are needed. Color is applied using inkjet technology to each page, as the build proceeds. After many layers have been built up, the ream can be removed from the machine and a solid object broken out. A tungsten blade is used during the process to cookie-cut the shape of each layer. Because the mcor process uses paper as its raw material, it works out cheaper for some applications.

Using standard paper for 3D printing is pretty unique, but mcor can also do this in a million colors, in 5760 x 1440 x 508dpi, and claim to deliver consistent, rich color, from part to part. How? See here

The company has recently cut a deal with Staples in the Netherlands to provide 3D model printing on demand. Customers will upload 3D data to the online Stables Office Centre and will pick up their model in their nearby Staples store (or shipped).

This news follow announcements at EUROMOLD of the new mcor IRIS printer, the first 'true color' 3D printer.

Because all of these processes are very different, and there are many more, each 3D printing 'technique' will find its niches in specific applications. There is no universal approach (yet).

Monday, 3 December 2012

CSC releases report on 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing

The CSC Leading Edge Forum has released a report entitled "3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing"

This detailed 33 page report describes current, near term and future potential developments in the field. It explains the disruptive implications of additive manufacturing without tooling, assembly lines or supply chains.

Download the LEF report on 3D Printing

Previous Leading Edge Forum reports have covered topics as diverse as Digital Identity, the Future of Healthcare, Windows 8, the Big Data rEvolution and Finance in the Era of the Connected Consumer.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Rise and Rise of MakerBot Industries

A video showcasing MakerBot Industries has appeared at In the video, the journalist interviewing CEO Bre Pettis repeats the meme comparing MakerBot with the emergence of Apple in the late 70s and early 80s.

3D printing is now a distinct new consumer product category. Could it be that MakerBot really is the next Apple? Or is a Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printer so simple, that it will be easily replicated?

More stories that feature MakerBot

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Stratasys and Autodesk 97% Cost Reduction 83% Time Reduction

In a showcase project, Stratasys working with Autodesk have demonstrated how a full-scale turbo-prop aircraft engine model can be produced at 97% cost reduction and in 83% less time - only 6 weeks  end to end.

The engine was crafted using Autodesk Inventor software, and printed in parts on both Fortus and Dimension 3D printers.

"The engine’s gear box includes two sets of gears, which operate two sets of propellers that move in counter rotation to each other. With an engine length of over 10 feet, a blade-span of 10.5 feet, and 188 components, the engine model is massive in size. It includes several large parts, such as six propeller blades, each measuring 4.5 feet."

More info here

Objet announces massive 0.4 meter cube build volume at Euromold

Objet has announced a new 3D printer that enjoys all the advantages of its multi-material additive process, with a massive 1000 x 800 x 500 mm build volume.

It's a lovely piece of kit, but I cannot help thinking that the preparation required to print such large and detailed models, in multiple materials, and with moving parts, is a tad more complex than implied by the video.

The real Bots are not yet MakerBots

One day, in the distant future, it may be possible to print an iPhone using only 'layer by layer' additive manufacturing (AM). Don't hold your breath. Despite all of the media attention, its easy to forget that if 3D printing expanded 10 fold the sector would still only represent less than 1% of global manufacturing. The various kinds of 3D printing available today are a complementary sidebar to traditional manufacturing.

The real 'bots' are not yet MakerBots.

Consider this: One million 'Foxbot' industrial robots may be replacing one million humans at Foxconn, the Taiwenese contract manufacturing giant who make products such as the iPhone, iPad, Kindle and Xbox.

The company has placed an initial order for 10,000 industrial robots. This single order dwarfs typical sales of professional 3D printers of any kind and would be the envy of AM giants such as 3D Systems and Stratasys.

Is the consumer space different? MakerBot Industries is the poster child of the RepRap-inspired home 3D printer with products such as the CupCake, Thing-O-Matic and Replicator. Able to print plastic objects in single color and free of geometric constraint (via Fused Deposition Modelling or 'plastic squirting') the company claims to have shipped 17,000 units as of August 2012. That's impressive.

Despite the success of industrial AM and enthusiast-driven 3D printing, there are orders of magnitude more industrial robots at work in industry than there are AM machines. Whether this will change in the future is anyone's guess?

In some ways a 3D printer is a robot.

3D printer  start-ups are often compared with companies like Apple who - after the experimentation phase was over - drove the home computing revolution in the 80s and (as a side effect) set the stage for the WWW. Some are claiming that 3D printing may be bigger than the Web.

It is somewhat ironic that if MakerBot Industries terms out to be as successful as Apple, it may have to employ a Foxconn style production factory in order to satisfy demand. If so, it might not be 3D printers producing the parts for MakerBot founder Bre Pettis, but robots of the more traditional kind. The future is mixed-mode manufacturing and heavily automated.

Before Foxconn sheds its workers and replaces them with robots, take a look inside the factory as an iPad comes to life. As you do, imagine how 3D printing could take its place along the bots at Foxconn - human or otherwise.

3D Systems to democratize stereolithography

As 3D Systems sues both Formlabs and Kickstarter over patents controlling access to stereolithography, they set up a nice contradiction by celebrating 25 years of stereolithography innovation claiming that 3D Systems is "... excited by, and committed to, democratizing access to 3D printing for both the non-expert professional user and the hobbyist/consumer market over time."

This is precisely FormLabs' mission.

3D Systems and Chuck Hull are clearly proud of their stereolithography but the company could have chosen to bring lower cost products to the market years ago.

Should 3D Systems stand down from their legal action and give the talented and young team at FormLabs a chance? It's been over two decades. Patents have expired or are expiring. A new generation of makers with us, eager to take Chuck's pioneering work to the next level. Should he let them?

Did 3D Systems keep the price of stereolithography artificially high?  Or did they simply miss the significance of the larger potential market created by the commoditization of 3D Printing?

No one yet knows who will win out in the legal case. Does it mark the end for FormLabs, or will they allow themselves to be acquired by 3D Systems? Could it be that the patent does not apply to the mechanism behind the FORM-1? Or were 3D Systems about to announce new lower cost SLA machines of their own? Did they need a little more time and chose to use their financial muscle to hold the young upstart FormLabs at bay?

Whatever the substance of this stereolithography patent wrangle turns out to be, is it possible that FormLabs innovated in other ways? Do core science and engineering patents always trump every other factor?

Read more here

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Challenge to MakerBot: Platform not Product

I was going to buy a CupCake, but then I thought, "Shall I wait for the Thing-O-Matic?" Fearing obsolescence I never did around to that. And I was right ... along came Replicator. Looked nice, but what about those rumors of the Replicator 2? Finally, credit card in hand ... Replicator 2X hits the blogs. 

Regular obsolescence is OK at Kindle, Android and iPhone prices, but even some of those consumers are becoming vocal about the upgrade problem

3D printers are far more expensive than smart phones. No one is going to buy a new one each year. For this, and for engineering reasons, what's needed is a 3D printing platform. 

A platform is not the same as a kit. It is also more than the outer case. A platform is designed from the get-go to be both modular and expandable, in as many dimensions and attributes as humanly possible. 

This nirvana may be too early for the market, but I would like to know that my 3D printer supplier is thinking "platform" as I invest, with them, in the development of my evolving home factory. 

Can new 3D printers feel more like early home PCs? 

In the late 70s and early 80s, kits such as the NASCOM provided a true computing platform. They were given a sophisticated bus on the main board, and could be expanded via cables or rack - home made or otherwise. Hobbyists could add additional purchased or homegrown cards for memory, graphics, disk, other I/O, specialized peripherals, and software. 

Or think about how R/C car enthusiasts upgrade critical parts such as transports, motors, wheel bearings and shocks, replacing plastic with metal, in order to achieve greater performance. 

I think the 'maker' community is starting to think this way about 3D printing. MakerBot Industries may have abandoned the idea of supplying kits but that decision is not incompatible with the idea of providing a platform.

A German RepRap group has described a new 3D printer called the PTotos X400. I'm not saying that this is the perfect 'platform', but do you think it is heading in the right direction? 

Here's my wish list:
  • I need my supplier to think platform not product or kit
  • I don't need them to amaze me with a new product each year, this is more than likely to depress me
  • I don't want build volume to be limited from the get-go, with nowhere to go
  • I need them to explain how they are building in expansion and upgrades in everything they provide, even if those shopping options are not available today
  • I wish to start on a sound base, of industrial strength
  • I can imagine higher fidelity everything that impacts part quality, from chassis, to electronics, through motors, print heads, rods, drives, bearings, belts and shafts
  • I must be able to upgrade any critical part, such as to a ceramic platform
  • I need the confidence to know that I won't be cut out of process, geometry or material innovations coming down the line
  • I will eventually want to experiment with multiple print heads, of different types
  • Why couldn't my factory also support milling?
In short, I want to be able to upgrade my 3D factory over time, just like I do my sound system. What's your 3D platform wish list?  

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Is 3D Printing the Microwave Oven of the future?

The hype surrounding "3D printing" has now reached the point where journalists in one part of the media are criticizing journalists in other parts of the media. Ironic, since it is largely the media, not the industry, that has inflated the significance of additive manufacturing.

I particularly enjoyed Willard Foxton's analogy between additive manufacturing and cooking.  Writing in the The Telegraph he concludes: "It strikes me that 3D printing is the microwave of manufacturing. If you look back at newspapers from the 1970s, people predicted that microwaves would be the only device in a kitchen, and that every dish would be microwaved. That never came to pass. Like microwaves, 3D printing will be important, but this isn't the industrial revolution that techno-libertarians would have you believe."

Perhaps Mr Foxton has not yet heard that 3D Printing is also predicted to dominate the kitchen just as the microwave was predicated to do, but did not. Nevertheless, we do all own a microwave ;-)

Friday, 23 November 2012

Carbomorph material for 3D Printed Electronics

With the increase of additive manufacturing (3D Printing) in so many product categories, it is natural that the specter of "printed electronics" is raising its head. 3D printing can already manufacture in multiple materials and with moving parts, so why not embed the electronics as well?

This is NOT 3D Printed Electronics
The idea of 3D printing a product with embedded electronics appeals to anyone with the proverbial "Star Trek" replicator on their mind. The idea also appeals to 'makers' who already use 3D printing to make plastic parts for their homegrown and community-led electronics projects. Examples include FDM-printed plastic robots with LED eyes and customized boxes for devices such as the Arduino and RaspberryPi. 

A lot of real electronics is already "printed" of course, e.g. thin film transistors, resisters and the like. Wikipedia is a useful starting point for learning about this field. More is coming.

The Norwegian company ThinFilm are advancing the state-of-the-art using esoteric techniques such as printing re-writeable non-volatile memory using ferroelectric polymers. This opens the possibility of printed "memory everywhere", in toys, cards, games, sensors, batteries, displays, RFID tags and on other surfaces.  The use of a polymer must ring loud bells for anyone interested in the development of hybrid AM processes that include electronics. 

In another development, Stratasys are collaborating with Optomec to develop printable objects embossed with electronics. Optomec's Aerosol Jet Printing (AJP) has the ability to print fine feature electronic, structural and biological patterns onto almost any substrate.  

More recently, a team from the University of Warwick in the UK have created an inexpensive conductive plastic nicknamed 'carbomorph'. They have demonstrated how the material can be FDM-printed as part of a 3D object to form touch sensitive areas, flex sensors and buttons. They plan to print wires and connection points to external devices.

Can these techniques be used to create hybrid 3D printing processes that embrace electronics? Imagine if, for example, one of the many material options offered by Object included a material like carbomorph or an electric polymer? 

I wonder in what combination fused deposition, inkjet, polyjet, aerosol jet, ferroelectric polymers, carbomorphs, silver-nanos and sol-jel inks will win in the race to a usefully general-purpose 3D-printed electronic platform, one that is compatible with other AM processes.  If anyone out there has any cross-over ideas, do let me know. 

Next step: Now imagine throwing in 3D printed optics to boot, replacing the discrete LED eyes in the plastic robots above. I cannot help thinking that the journey to a future where it is possible NOT to need to assemble a sophisticated consumer product is a long one. It will also require changes in the way we think about the internal geometry, proximity and interconnection of parts.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Big Friendly Giant (BFG) of 3D Printing - Glassy (Amorphous) Metals

If anyone questions whether the term "3D Printing" is slightly ridiculous, referring as it does to so many utterly different processes, add in the orthogonal dimension of materials science and you'll see why.

A small research company in Sweden has announced a unique breakthrough in bulk "metallic glass" manufacturing.
For those of us outside the field of materials sciences, BFG stands for The Big Friendly Giant, a character in a children's book of the same name by Roald Dahl. To a materials scientist it is Bulk Metallic Glasses or glassy alloys.

To a scientist, the technical term 'glass' means far more than window-glass. It refers to amorphous (non-crystalline) materials and their transition states, e.g. from hard and brittle to soft and rubbery. It turns out that a wide range of materials can exhibit an amorphous state, including metal alloys and polymers.

Transparency is associated with the amorphous state. But whereas ordinary glass is an insulator, a glassy metal can be an electrical conductor.

Exmet's breakthough is that they have demonstrated how the additive manufacturing process called Electron Beam Melting can be used to make products from Glassy Metals. The material is extremely strong (2 to 15 times that of a normal crystalline metal), extremely plastic, non-corrosive and potentially highly resistant against metal fatigue. Thus, just as using polymer rather than ordinary glass for eye lenses results in a much lighter pair of reading glasses, glassy metals could bring similar benefits to a range of industrial product areas, including biomedical implant manufacturing. Imagine for example, a titanium amorphous state.

Previously, production of glassy metals was limited by  inadequate manufacturing methods set by traditional approaches such as casting, melt spinning and thermoplastic forming.

More info here

Take away: This story illustrates why the impact of additive manufacturing on global manufacturing supply chain cannot be judged by adopting a broad term such as "3D Printing".

When working with clients, AM consultants look to the details and intersection of materials science and additive processes. They contextualize the possibilities within the design process of existing products or for the potential of new products needed in the world. It's a constantly changing maze.

Each 3D Printer maker is always trying to extend the range of materials available for their process. This applies whether you are MakerBot (Fused Deposition Modelling) at the 'enthusiast engineer' end of the market with PLA, ABS and PVA filament or Objet (advanced 'Inkjet' 3D Printing) for the production of professional prototype or 'end use' parts with a range of over one hundred photo-curable polymers.

At the same time, materials suppliers are constantly improving and adapting existing materials or are developing new materials for use within existing AM processes. This applies whether you are faberdashery at the 'maker' end of the market creating unique filament for your RepRap spool, or Exmet at the extremes of materials R&D conjuring up 'glassy metals' for use on Arcam Electron Beam Melting (EBM) machines.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Shock - 3DSystems suing Formlabs and Kickstarter - Stereolithography patents

Now it gets nasty.

Giant 3D Systems is suing both tiny Formlabs, and Kickstarter, over patents relating to 3D printing, specifically stereolithography. After an incredibly successful funding round on Kickstarter, the sad news will come as a surprise to many.

According to the BBC, in legal filings 3D Systems point to statements by Formlabs executives about the expiry of related patents, allowing it to avoid paying licensing fees to 3D Systems. They also cite statements by investment bank JP Morgan highlighting the disruptive threat posted by Formlabs and low cost stereolithography to future sales of more expensive 3D Systems products.

3D Systems says that Formlabs did not approach them to ascertain whether their work might risk patent infringement. 3D Systems are claiming immediate and irreparable injury and damage to their business.

As well as crowd-sourced funding via Kickstarter, Formlabs is VC-backed. It is unusual for venture capitalists not to have done their due diligence with respect to any blocking patents. Especially in this case, the patent angle was well known. More will no doubt emerge over the next days and weeks.

The news comes after financial analysts highlighted questionable accounting practices at 3D Systems, which led to a stock slump. At the same time, some commentators are saying that despite consumer and media excitement about the potential of additive manufacturing, the sector is over-hyped, and ripe for a bubble.

Backers of the Formlabs Kickstarter funding round which totally $2.9M will no doubt now be wondering whether that money will be diverted from fulfilling orders for Form-1 printers, into the coffers of industry giant 3D Systems [NYSE:DDD].

The rights and wrongs of this specific case have yet to be determined.

The moral of the story may be: do not back a start up with significant cash unless it is clear they are not infringing patents of incumbents. The cash might not end up where you sent it! Let's also hope it does not end up in the hands of lawyers, depriving Formlabs of the funds it needs in order to fulfill the orders pledged via Kickstarter.

It is inevitable that companies whose market valuation depends to a large degree on patents will defend their future earnings potential on behalf of their stockholders.

There is a wider debate about the global patent system and whether it is broken. Whole books have been written about it.

Read Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It The Economist said of this book that it is "A disturbing analysis of how the patent system, the heart of the knowledge economy, is rotten. With plenty of examples, the authors explain how America's patent system has become slow and bureaucratic, awarding too many patents for the wrong sorts of things. As a result, it is a threat to this most innovative economy."

No one knows how the action taken by 3D systems against FormLabs and Kickstarter will turn out. More and more coverage of the story is appearing around the web, including links to the legal documentation:

Experts claim that key patents in 3D printing start expiring in 2013, and will continue to lapse through 2014 and 2015. Enthusiasts hope for a big bang of 3D printer innovation, and massive price-drops, in the years to come.

3D Materials creativity from faberdashery

With more and more people owning a home 3D printer, and then wondering what on earth to do with it, demand for novel materials will increase.  One company that designs and manufactures unique thermoplastic filament "by the metre" is cleverly named faberdashery.

For example, take a look at this beautiful dark blue filament, flecked with stardust. "Reminiscent of a clear starry night, create a new cosmos in every object. It prints to a rich blue with a hint of translucency, to reveal the subtle silver glitter."

These new filaments are unique in having certain properties such as aesthetic colours, smelling nice when printed and not made from fossil fuels.

More unique filaments here

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Rich clients will pay for expensive 3D Printed models

It costs $14 and $38 shipping at Cubify to print plastic robots. What do you think it would cost to 3D print a model like this?

It is a model of Yongsan District in Seoul, the most expensive real estate. The model was produced for clients of top architectural modelling firm Modelzium. An Objet Eden 3D Printer was employed.

If you plan to build that city, the price of a 3D object no matter how expensive, is of utter insignificance.

More info here

Is Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBR) 3D Printing?

We've discussed before how 3D printing is not a single platform nor a single technology. Here is an extreme example. Could Molecular Bean Epitaxy (MBE) be called "3D Printing"? It works 'layer-by-layer' which is the only shared characteristic of many other additive manufacturing technologies, so I don't see why MBE cannot be called "3D Printing" (grin)

MBE builds molecular scale structures to form objects - just like a MakerBot uses plastic, but on a far smaller scale.  If you want an MBE machine at home, take a look at this image:

Electronics giant Sharp has an experimental MBE machine on the Oxford Science Park in the UK. Oxford’s scientists can grow a small platter of LEDs in half a day. On a commercial scale, they’ll grow four times each day, generating thousands of LEDs per platter, to produce anything from tens of thousands to millions of finished components with each 24 hour cycle.

This small MBE is actually a baby compared to those found in factories, but serves as an incubator for inventions yet to make it to high street shelves. The idea is that in the future MBE machines may be able to extend beyond LEDs and laser components, to a wider array of everyday electronic gadgets.

More info here

Precise Military and Industrial Parts in the field and on-demand

With NASA investigating whether it is practical to 3D print parts in Space, and EADS investigating whether it is practical to 3D print parts on the battlefield, it's interesting to look at the products that EADS chose for its pilot. They were:

spaceclaim.jpg   scanninng-1-web.png

Monday, 19 November 2012

'Make' buttons coming to a device near you

What MyRobotNation, Cubify, Shapeways, PonokoSculpteo, i-Materialize, FigurePrints and Mineways are demonstrating is that there is absolutely no reason not to put a 'MAKE' button in any Web service, game or software package.

It's going to be a race to find the apps that create the experiences, the business model to capture orders, and the factory of the future to fulfil them. Who will win?

Will it be a retail, fulfilment and cloud services giant like Amazon? Or perhaps there is time for existing 3D print services to scale up (before they are acquired). Perhaps the printer manufacturers will extend their industrial parts services, to the consumer tsunami. Is it possible that a custom sourcing marketplace such as Alibaba could make a move?

It's been noted that GE, with its broad range of products, is exploring additive manufacturing. Estimates of millions of dollars of saving have been made if GE used 3D printing for just one part in one product. Amazon has a similar scale of interests, but does not manufacture today. Is 3D printing cost effective enough to entice Amazon to an experiment?

Will Amazon and GE see 3D printing as a business to be in, or simply a new manufacturing method. Will 3D printing disappear into supply chains as traditional parts are selectively replaced by 3D printed alternatives?

It may not be only 3D printing that matters. After all, there are many other ways to automate manufacturing.  Expect to see traditional machines along side the new 3D printers in the factory of the future. There might be more than an .STL file behind the 'Make' buttons of the future.

MakerBots in a Booth on every corner

A way forward for accessible 3D printing.

The Dreamvendor is four MakerBots in a booth. Students can bring along their SD-cards containing 3D making code (G-Code, STL file, etc), and can quickly fabricate prototypes related to their projects or personal interest.

The machine has no inventory. Instead, it is simply reloaded with spools of coloured plastic filament.

More info here

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Amazing consumer 3D Print Services, but is the business model right?

Sign up at MyRobotNation and you can have an utterly unique 4-inch high robot figure for approximately $60 including international shipping. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed designing my robot but at $60 a shot I think 3DR01 will the first, and only, member of my robot nation.

At my kids can order an electronically controlled robot arm kit for less. The kit will contain over 150 parts including 5 motors for 5 axes of control. It will not only take longer to build than the 3D printed robot took to design, but offer greater learning value and, fun afterwards. All a 3D printed robot can do is sit on the shelf, a cute ornament, not a toy. 

Powered by a cleverly branded UI and ZCorp printers, MyRobotNation is a marvel. It shows what is possible with 3D printing, but it is nowhere near the price point required for consumer adoption. The site is currently shipping about one and a half robots per day. (I know this because of the position of my robot in the carousel of newest robots

Price is a similar problem at other consumer 3D print sites. I was attracted to Cubify where I found Robot Collection #1. The site is owned and operated by 3D printing giant, 3D Systems

For $14 you can buy a set of three plastic snap together robots. A child can pose the robot or swap its parts with others for color or shape combinations. Judging by images, the robots are about 2.5 to 3 inches in height. This is the kind of toy you can find in packs of ten at our local market, for less than two UK pounds! But hey, the Cubify robots were "3D Printed" .... doesn't that justify the mark up? No, it does not. Worse, when I went to check out at Cubify I was offered no shipping options. Shipping of $38.68 was added to my $14 order. For three small plastic robots, they must be kidding. 

The experience of 3D design is not something you can sell, over and over again, hoping to embed the cost within each object purchased. Unless per-print prices drop dramatically, consumers will not be handing over their credit card to their kids. After all, cute plastic printed robots and other trinkets are not new products. You cannot overcharge for them, no matter how unique they are. Rather than buying parts, parents would be far better off buying the child their own 3D Printer! And that's precisely the plan.

The Cubify service launched off the back of the Cube printer. 3D Systems hope that the experience of selecting, customizing, buying, and eventually holding a 3D printed object will entice families to purchase their own Cube 3D printer. At the prices for piece-parts I quoted above, it will! But in a rapidly changing field with better printers appearing all the time, many will stop and think twice.
The Cube - What's in the Box

Cubify is hanging its success on 3D content ... providing downloads of 3D model data to print @home. In this way they hope to kick start a 3D printing habit in every child. 

Just as the Kindle e-book reader links the device to an Amazon account, the Cube printer needs to be activated and linked to a Cubify account. 

Books are however very different to plastic toys. They take time to read. And analogies with home PC take up may be equally vacuous.

In the late 70s, hobbyists were already moving from building, to buying, early home PCs. Later, in the early 80s, home PC sales were driven by the availability of a rapidly growing catalog of software titles. There was a virtuous circle - a symbiotic relationship between hardware and software - each driving sales of the other. Is this an analogy for Cubify and similar services? Are 3D 'objects' the new software?  

For the time being at least, 3D objects printed at home may be unique, but they are also homogeneous plastic, offer few moving parts and limited color. They resemble cheap plastic toys. How quickly will the novelty wear off? By contrast, a software title once purchased is not an object put on a shelf. It becomes a regular activity, driving further attention to the computer upon which it runs. 

It's early days for consumer 3D. No one really knows what is going to stick. Perhaps what is needed at 3D printing sites like Cubify and MyRobotNation is to price 'as a service', not as a transaction. It's the experience that sells, not plastic toys available elsewhere for peanuts.