A Coming Wave of Small-scale Manufacturing Innovation

by Steve King on August 12, 2009

Desktop manufacturing systems use 3D ink-jet printer technology to “print” an object by spraying layer upon layer of fine beads of plastic or resin. These beads build up to create a freestanding product.

Desktop 3D printers, which are about the size of a desktop laser printer, have been around for a long time and are mostly used to quickly and cheaply produce prototypes and models. Because of this use, they are often referred to as “rapid prototyping machines.”

3D printers are also starting to be used to make final products out of plastics and resins. For example, some headphone earbud manufacturers use 3D printers to make final products. And comedian and auto enthusiast Jay Leno uses a small 3D printer to replicate antique car parts that are no longer available.

But a major limitation of 3D printers has been the layering materials. Until very recently 3D printers could only make products out of plastics and resins.

But that is changing. Shapeways is an online 3D printing service that takes user submitted designs and turns them into products. They recently announced a 3D printer that creates products using stainless steel. Their 3D printing process layers stainless steel powder and the resulting product is heated, cured and infused with bronze.

In addition to supporting more layering materials, 3D printer costs continue to fall. A basic, desktop-sized 3D printer costs less than $5,000 and 3D printer kits can be purchased for less than $2,000. We saw several of these kits at the recent Maker Faire.

Just as desktop laser printers connected to PCs led to desktop publishing, low cost PC driven tools such as 3D printers are starting to unleash a wave of small-scale manufacturing innovation.

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