Guns and organs – the human kind – grab all the headlines. Print your own firearm, eventually produce a copy of your spleen.
Despite the excitement surrounding the potential of 3D printing, commercial manufacturing is driving use of the technology today for design and rapid prototyping of products or parts.
The technology is not cheap. A sophisticated, high-end system for manufacturing costs upwards of $100,000. Like all technologies, prices are coming down. Gartner Inc., a technology research firm in Stamford, Conn., predicts what it calls enterprise-class printers to drop as low $2,000 by 2016, putting them well within reach of most businesses and even consumers. Then, says Gartner, the technology will take off and expand into new applications and markets.
In northern Nevada, only a handful of manufacturers use 3D printers now. The Desert Research Institute purchased one for use in its virtual reality facility and provides 3D printing services for businesses. The DeLaMare Library at University of Nevada, Reno, has two for student and faculty use. There’s even a maker and seller of low-end 3D printers and 3D printer kits for consumers, Reno’s 3D Botic.
“It shortens the design process to a matter of days from six weeks to three months,” says Roy Klino, owner, Solid Solutions Design & Machine LLC, a Sparks-based machine shop. “You can get to product that much quicker.”
Klino purchased a ProJet 3000 HD 3D printer for $105,000 from 3D Systems Inc., Rock Hill, S.C., in late 2011. The printer uses an acrylic plastic and can print objects sized 11.75 inches by 7.3 inches by 8 inches.
“About the size of a sheet of paper,” says Klino. “The printer works flawlessly. We haven’t kept it as busy as we wished. I’d like to keep it busy 24x7. We took a bit of jump into the unknown to help create a manufacturing base for northern Nevada, to help lure and support manufacturers and high tech.”
CGI Inc., a manufacturer of precision gear heads in Carson City, purchased a Stratasys Ltd. ObJet 3D printer a few months ago and is using it in several different ways, says Tim Pirie, manufacturing engineering manager. First, the manufacturer produces a rapid prototype of a customer’s design, which is easier and more accurate to follow than drawings or schematics. That prototype is also used to tweak the manufacturing process beforehand and to determine if any special tools are needed. And, finally, those special tools or gauges or any other unique device needed can be made using the printer.
The printer has also proven to be a boon to the company’s customer relations. Building a quick prototype that customers can see and feel has fine-tuned and reduced the amount of back and forth.
“It’s a great tool to interface with our customer,” says Pirie. “It offers them a level of comfort and conveys a certain level of professionalism.”
DRI bought a Z Corp. ZPrinter 650 after building a virtual reality facility used by businesses and others to map out terrains or create training exercises or model buildings before they’re built. DRI signs non-disclosure contracts with all its commercial customers, but Tom Jackman, interim senior director of DRI’s Center for Advanced Visualization, Computation and Modeling, says one example of the facility’s use was by an engineering firm working on a multimillion dollar public works project that simulated the building in order to tweak the design.
“The printer can be used to create items from the virtual world,” says Jackman. “And we use the printer independently of virtual reality,” to build product prototypes for businesses and entrepreneurs.
DRI charges for its time and materials, producing objects in what he describes as a composite, ceramic-like material. Jackman says DRI would automate at its web site the process for submitting 3D files for printing if there were more demand for the service, although he says there has been a flurry of interest in the technology in the last month.
3D Botics, a Reno start-up run by Chris Bulen, a mechanical engineer, sells 3D printers for $1,497 and printer kits for $1,047 based on readily available open source hardware design and software code, although Bulen is planning to introduce a lower-priced proprietary-design printer. He sells at his web site, 3dbotic.com, and on eBay, mostly to curious consumers but has sold one printer to a Midwest clothing designer.
“3D printing is becoming useful for a lot of different things,” says Bulen, from dentists making dental molds to artists producing sculpture to future medical applications like tissue and organ replication.
“It’s a game changer in the way the Internet changed everything in the 90s.”