This article highlights three-dimensional printing as a rapid pro to typing process that builds objects by depositing a material such as thermoset resin in layers one on the other. Desktop 3D printers are now relatively inexpensive. Traditionally, printed models have been dipped in an epoxy resin. FigurePrints uses an automated system from xlaForm that allows parts to be infused in bulk in a heating machine. This method cuts processing time and labor costs, but is still time-consuming and allows processing only in batches. Wohlers is also watching Shapeways of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which has married 3D printing with the crowdsourcing model now being blazed on the Internet. This model asks Internet users to design or create products and then rank the results. At Shapeways, which is actually a business incubator sponsored by Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, consumers upload their own 3D models, which are then printed and shipped. Users can also purchase models.
Although three-dimensional printing isn’t a new process by today’s standards-it was first Lntfoduced Ln the mLd-198Ds-the number of companies that have built their entire business plan around that production method remains. relatively small.
Like other rapid prototyping processes, 3-D printing faces impediments to widespread business adoption: Part accuracy isn’t perfect, the software that drives the process still needs improvement, and printed parts must undergo some form of post processing, said Ed Grenda, president of the consulting company Castle Island Co. of Arlington, Mass. He also maintains the Web site Worldwide Guide to Rapid Pro to typing and founded Cambridge Technology Inc., a maker of optical scanning instrumentation that is now a division of Excel Laser.
Despite the drawbacks, some small entrepreneurial companies have based business plans on 3-D printing for the consumer market, he added.
"There’s a middle ground where you’ll find this stuff will be more and more used, and that’s by professionals who mediate between the final consumer and the technology," Grenda said. "It’s a pain to understand engineering- related stuff like tolerances. I’m the engineer and I don’t want to design anything other than what I specialize in."
Whether these companies fly or flag remains to be seen. According to Terry Wohlers, an industry consultant, these early companies still need to hammer out how they’ll grow, beyond simply investing in more 3-D printers, and find a way to streamline back-end processes to make them cost-effective.
But those who follow the industry are watching them closely because these early businesses are laying the groundwork for other companies looking to adopt 3-D printing.
For now, what these companies show is that 3-D prInting has a place as a cornerstone in a particular kind of new business’ model. The Internet has leveled the playing field for these companies and allowed them to move beyond the traditional role 3-D printing has to play in customized medical implants and for part manufacture, Wohlers said.
He runs the consulting firm Wohlers Associates in Fort Collins, Colo., which follows developments in product design, pro to typing, and manufacturing. He also coordinates an annual international conference devoted to the latest developments in rapid protot’yping, which is also called additive fabrication. The most recent conference, held in December in Frankfurt, Germany, looked at these new types of manufacturing organizations. It studied their structures, the types of products they offer, and how the companies manufacture and distribute products.
OUT OF THE COMPUTER
Prime examples are FigurePrints ofRedmond, Wash., and Fabjectory of Virginia Beach, Va. They both produce figurines based on online video games. FigurePrints makes small, 3-D models of characters from the World of Ware raft, and Fabjectory does the corresponding service for players in the Second Life virtual world.
Fabjectory creates 3-D models of a client’s avatar using screenshots taken in Second Life. The founder of the two-year-old company, Michael Buckabee, imports the shot into design software, then prints the figures on a color 3-D printer from Z Corp. ofBurlington, Mass.
Buckabee has said his business is targeted to the everyday consumer. Skilled engineers and designers could certainly design their own avatars and send them to be created at a rapid-prototyping and injection-molding fabricator such as Quickparts of Atlanta.
Ed -Fries, who founded FigurePrints, is a former vice president of gaming at Microsoft and a present-day World of Warcraft devotee. His company, launched in December 2007, creates five-inch-tall 3-D figures of _ World of War craft players’ characters. Within 12 hours after going live, the company received more than 4,000 requests for models, Fries said.
Since launch, the company has fielded more than 100,000 requests and now fulfills orders on a lottery basis. Potential customers sign up for the lottery via e-mail and FigurePrints holds a monthly drawing to determine which orders to fulfill, Wohlers said.
A handful of FigurePrints employees print the 3-D models on about four Z Corp. color printers. A model, which sells for $129.95, plus shipping, takes 10 hours to produce. The company won’t say how many are produced each month.
Z Corp. quotes a price of approximately $50,000 each for the machines.
FigurePrints could very well serve as a bell~ether for the growth of small consumer companies centered on 3-D printing. Fries’ company is intriguing and so far quite successful. But could it feasibly fulfill every order with no need for a lottery? Wohlers will be watching growth with interest.
To grow, Fries might bring in a full fleet of3-D printers and hire a large staff to field requests and print models. But simply increasing build speed by adding more printers wouldn’t ensure business growth. There are back-end considerations as well, Wohlers said.
"FigurePrints would need to receive these jobs from World of Warcraft users, and then be able to automate that process so a human doesn’t have to review each one and make sure the model can be built," Wohlers said.
Also, in creating realistic avatars, FigurePrints must overcome one significant barrier to entry for the consumer- oriented, 3-D printing-based businesses: post processing, Grenda said. Today’s 3-D printing objects don’t look perfect-like the piece the consumer envisions-right out of the machine.
"You need to perform some kind of significant secondary operations to it to improve the finish and add strength," Grenda said. "The materials are porous and you’ll have to do something to improve the finish. And most of these secondary operations are messy."
And they must be done cost-effectively if a company is going to grow its bottom line.
Traditionally, printed models have been dipped in -an epoxy resin, Wohlers said. FigurePrints uses an automated system from xlaForm that allows parts to be Infused in bulk in a heating machine. This method cuts processing time and labor costs, but is still time-consuming and allows processing only in batches.
Still, a few complaints about FigurePrints’ finish quality have been logged in the blogosphere. At least two early customers complained that their avatars looked dusty and said colors weren’t bold and bright, as promised. But those early complaints haven’t been echoed oflate.
Wohlers will be watching FigurePrints to gauge growth potential for a small business driving a new rapid prototyping business model.
"Rapid pro to typing has traditionally been low-volume, high-margin business, and FigurePrints is the inverse of that," Wohlers said. "Maybe it’s even no margin. We don’t know yet."
Wohlers is also watching Shapeways of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which has married 3-D printing with the crowdsourcing model now being blazed on the Internet. That model asks Internet users to design or create products and then rank the results.
At Shapeways, which is actually a business incubator sponsored by Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, consumers upload their own 3-D models, which are then printed and shipped. Users can also purchase models.
Shapeways maintains several rapid prototyping machines, including a laser sintering machine from Electro Optical Systems of Munich, Germany; a fused deposition machine from Stratasys ofMinneapolis, and a 3-D desktop printer from Dimension 3D of Eden Prairie, Minn.
"The objects are scored like you’d score something on Amazon," Wohlers said. "So people can get a feel for what others think about their designs."
Many designers create their models using the Sketchup or Rhino modeling programs, and Shapeways offers its own Shapeways Creator program.
It’s too early to tell whether Shapeways will succeed and be spun off from Philips, Wohlers said.
"But the concept itself-the idea that anyone can create a design and be able to receive it-will probably be successful," he said.
The company will have to demonstrate it can expand beyond a service bureau that prints consumer design into a profitable seller of user-created designs on the site. That
may be a challenge, as many designs submitted to Shapeways likely won’t be of top quality and would sell poorly, Wohlers said.
"Amateurish won’t sell," he cautioned.
Lionel Dean agrees. He intended his FutureFactories project as a one-year design residency at the University of Huddersfield in Huddersfield, England. Now, he has spun off the project into a business devoted to one-off designs created via rapid-pro to typing methods. A business of his type can be successful if for no other reason than low overhead, Dean said.
As chief designer at FutureFactories, Dean creates oneof-a-kind consumer objects made via rapid prototyping methods such as metal sintering. Designs evolve over time, so each object, such as a piece ofjewelry or a headdress, is different. The aim is to combine the charm of craft production with the technical development and resolution of mass-market consumer products, Dean said.
"It’s cheap to do this stuff," he said. "It costs the same to produce two different variants as two identical ones: The economies-of-scale rationale of serial production does not apply."
Rapid prototyping technologies require no tooling investment. Tpere are no molds or dies to produce, Dean said.
In the coming years, as rapid-pro to typing methods evolve and materials come down in price, FutureFactories will be able to match the materials and finishes to those achieved from conventional manufacture, Dean predicted.
"The costs and performance of rapid pro to typing processes is certain to come down as manufacturers turn their attention from prototyping to production," Dean said. "The range of materials is likely to increase and multiple materials within the same build will become more prevalent."
For his part, Grenda has his doubts about the future affordability of the polymers, powers, and metal materials used in rapid prototyping processes.
"These days more and more materials are proprietary," he said. "The industry is very much husbanding the materials because a large fraction of the profit, I’d guess about 40 percent, comes from the material used."
Instead, it’s the introduction of affordable 3-D printers that may see more companies like FigurePrints and Shapeways as well as individual entrepreneurs make their way to the marketplace, Grenda said. For more than two years, Desktop Factory of Pasadena, Calif., an Idealab incubator, has continually pushed back its plans to introduce a $5,000 desktop 3-D printer. That printer is now scheduled to come to market early this year.
"People want to do these types of businesses, but they can’t really fool around with them," Grenda said. "For 5,000 bucks, you can afford to fool around and it won’t be rapacious on materials or business costs."
And it’s the business costs, bottom line, and plans for overall growth that these new companies need to work on, as they lead the way for later businesses based on 3-D printing to enter the market.