3D printing is getting cheap, fast, and pretty damn cool

By Ashlee Vance

Objects made with the Cube


On most weekends, 14-year-old Riley Lewis and a few of his eighth grade friends gather at his house in Santa Clara, Calif. The group of about five, depending on who’s around, grab some chips and bean dip and repair to the garage, where Riley and his dad have created something of a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub. The boys can pretty much fabricate anything they can dream up on a machine called the RapMan. As the hours tick by, they cover tables with their creations: rockets and guitar picks and cutlery. They hold forth on plastic extrusion rates and thermodynamics and how such forces affect the precision of the objects they can produce. “That’s a very beautiful gear you have printed,” a boy named Douglas tells Riley.

The kids obsess over what versions of the Linux operating system they run on their laptops and engage in awkward banter. “I will stab you with flash drives,” Riley tells Vernon, a skinny boy with a braided rattail who shows off a pair of freshly made plastic brass knuckles. Vernon says, “I want to print an essay for one of my teachers and hand it in on sheets of plastic instead of paper just to confuse people.”

Riley and his friends have accepted as a mundane fact that computer designs can be passed among friends, altered at will, and then brought to life by microwave oven-size machines. The RapMan is a crude approximation of far more expensive and sophisticated prototyping machines used by corporations, much in the same way that hobbyist PCs were humble mimics of mainframe computers. Riley and his dad, David, spent 32 hours putting together a 3D printer from a $1,500 hobbyist kit.

Like many 3D printers, the Lewises’ RapMan melts plastic (similar to that used in Legos) and then squirts it out of a movable nozzle in a controlled fashion. The nozzle goes back and forth, accompanied by an electric hum, depositing one ultra-thin layer of plastic at a time on a platform. Asked to build a cup, the machine will put down one ring of plastic, lower the platform by a fraction of a millimeter, put down another ring of plastic, and keep going until the cup is done. Want a handle, or your name inscribed on the cup? The RapMan can do that, too. Simply launch any number of free 3D software applications, tweak the object to match your desires, and click print.

For 25 years, carmakers and aerospace companies have used industrial-grade 3D printers to fashion prototype parts for their vehicles. More recently, the medical field has turned to the machines to make custom hearing aids and invisible braces, while architects use the technology to produce models and consumer electronics companies to build prototypes of their latest gadgets.

To a range of industries, 3D printers have become indispensable for doing business. The large industrial systems now run in price from about $5,000 to $1 million. These days, they can print in different colors of plastic and employ other materials such as metal, glass, and ceramics. Software makers are harnessing this power, making much better tools for manipulating objects.

Today the market for 3D printers stands at about $1.7 billion, says Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that tracks the industry. With sales of the machines rising quickly, Wohlers predicts the market will reach $3.7 billion by 2015. The industry has gone through a consolidation. Over the past couple of years, 3D Systems, the company that invented the 3D printing industry, bought one of its rivals as well as a multitude of hardware, software, and design companies. Two other leading players — Stratasys and Objet — recently agreed to merge.

As so often happens with industrial-grade technologies, 3D printing has flowed downstream to consumers. 3D Systems hit the road in mid-April, hawking the Cube. It’s a RapMan at heart but comes preassembled and looks like the brainchild of Apple’s industrial designers. For $1,299, anyone can now buy a 3D printer, hook it up to a Wi-Fi network, and begin downloading files that will turn into real objects. Meanwhile, design software maker Autodesk has released 123D, a suite of free applications that lets ordinary people design and customize objects on their PCs or even their iPads and then send them to a machine like the Cube.

These players have been joined by consumer-oriented upstarts that specialize in printing video-game avatars or topographical maps so you can memorialize in plastic a favorite campsite at Yosemite.

A Brooklyn-based manufacturer called MakerBot Industries has dominated the hobbyist market. It’s sold more than 10,000 desktop 3D printers and has just released a preassembled model called the Replicator that costs $1,749. “We have sold machines to Disney, Google, Microsoft and send them to dorm rooms all over the country,” says MakerBot co-founder Bre Pettis. “Our users could be people who work at NASA or Pixar or an ordinary person who wants to live in the future.”

Pettis and his fellow champions of 3D printing do tend to wax grandiose about the technology. It’ll mean the end of bland mass production. Housewares makers will be freed from designing forgettable, lowest-common-denominator products that get stamped out by the millions at some Chinese factory. Amazon.com could lower shipping costs by having items printed at its sorting centers or letting shoppers buy designs and print merchandise at home. Scott Summit, a veteran industrial designer, sees a new generation that has already embraced these ideas. “Twenty-five-year-olds today aren’t burdened with traditional methods and rules,” he says. “There are guys who have been doing 3D modeling since they were 11 and are caffeinated and ready to go. They can start a product company in a week and, in general, have a whole new take on what manufacturing can be.” Summit should know. He’s 3D-printing custom legs for amputees.

The ability to print physical objects wasn’t invented in Silicon Valley or some well-funded corporate research lab. It originated about 30 years ago in Southern California, where Chuck Hull was working for a modest-size manufacturer called Ultra Violet Products, or UVP. An engineer and physicist by training, Hull helped steer the development of the company’s ultraviolet-light curable resins, which were used to add protective coatings to furniture and other surfaces. Always a tinkerer, Hull began experimenting after hours with laying down numerous coats of the resin to make plastic models.

“I had been an engineer for 20 years, and it was always really difficult to prototype plastic parts,” says Hull, now 73. “You would design a part, go to a toolmaker who would build a plastic model, then you would need to fix any problems and start again. The whole process took about six weeks, so the idea of building parts for yourself with a machine was really cool.”

In a back room at the UVP offices, Hull crafted the first crude 3D printer. He filled a small basin with liquid resin and placed a platform controlled by an elevator mechanism inside the basin. Then Hull mounted a movable UV light fixture with a shutter overhead and wrote some software to control the orchestration of all these parts. The platform would be raised near the resin’s surface so that just a thin layer of the liquid sat on top. The light would turn on, the plastic would harden, and then the machine would lower the platform, lay down a new layer of resin, and the process could begin anew.

When Hull showed the machine to UVP’s president, he received disheartening news. The company’s main business had soured, and Hull, along with several other workers, was going to be laid off. So he talked the president into a deal: Hull would start a company around the new technology and give UVP part of the enterprise. Hull patented the process, dubbing it stereo lithography. “There I was, a 40-something-year-old doing a startup,” he says. “We called the company 3D Systems and were off and running.”

A tall, rangy character with a gray mustache and a deep voice, Hull still works in Valencia, Calif., as 3D Systems’ chief technology officer. He has a research lab full of testing equipment for new machines and materials located in an office park. The rest of the company, though, picked up and moved six years ago into sparkling new headquarters in Rock Hill, S.C., packed full of machines that seem straight out of Star Trek.

In a glass-enclosed area near the center of the Rock Hill facility, production manager Chris Lewis stands in front of an sPro 230. This tool-shed-size machine is a factory in and of itself. It can produce a shopping cart as easily as it can make a car dashboard, lighting fixture, or toy castle.

Each sPro 230 gets filled with a special type of plastic powder that costs $55 a pound. Lewis sends a computer-generated 3D image of an object to the machine, and it sets to work building the product one micro-thin layer at a time. A mechanical arm spreads a layer of powder on a platform inside the sPro 230. Then a laser beams down from overhead, fusing the powder into solid plastic in specified places and leaving the excess powder undisturbed. Next, the platform drops by 0.003 inches to 0.006 inches, depending on the job; the roller coats the platform with another layer of powder, the laser fires again, and so on. Imagine building a pyramid from top to bottom. The laser would first fuse the powder to make the top of the pyramid and then gradually make ever-larger squares to capture the object’s expanding contour. If you wanted ridges or squiggly lines along the side of the pyramid, the super-precise laser would simply trace out the desired pattern instead of making perfect squares.

While the process still requires handwork today, it’s quickly becoming faster, cheaper, and more automated, which opens the technology up to new customers. Already companies such as Mercedes, Honda, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin use 3D printers to fashion prototypes or to make parts that go into final products. The technology has broadened out to attract vacuum maker Oreck and Invisalign, which produces custom braces for teeth. Microsoft also uses a 3D printer to help design computer mice and keyboards. “A person who buys a BMW will want a part of the car with their name on it or to customize the seats to the contours of their bodies,” says Abe Reichental, chief executive officer at 3D Systems. “We’re printing with chocolate in our research labs today, so Godiva might print a candy bar with your face on it. The possibilities are only limited by our imagination.”

Reichental, 55, arrived at 3D Systems eight years ago to get the company’s business in order. He had spent 22 years at Sealed Air, a packaging company that grew from $78 million to $4 billion in sales in that span. Reichental’s last job at Sealed Air was running the division that made plastic films to coat food and other items. It may not sound sexy, but the role taught him the nuances of producing both industrial machines and the materials they consumed.

From a massive office full of 3D-printed objects including a giant ant, machine gears, and a magenta-colored bust of Walt Disney, Reichental talks about proprietary plastic. He’s a man of modest height, with a precisely trimmed beard and a tweed jacket. He says about 70 percent of 3D Systems’ revenue today comes from recurring sales of materials, up from 10 percent when Reichental took over. Last year the company’s annual revenue rose 44 percent, to $230.4 million, from $159.9 million. “The company we have today has little to no resemblance to the one I found,” Reichental says.

He peers out to the factory floor and can see into the various glass-enclosed manufacturing hubs. One of these large rooms contains the tool shed-size machines, which are used to build parts for customers. Another room has cheaper, refrigerator-size machines meant to sit on a customer’s manufacturing floor or at an architect’s or an orthodontist’s office. In the back cleaning areas, 200-pound bags of powder lie next to workstations, looking like deflated balloons. They’re surrounded by yet more machinery that collects the so-called virgin powder from excavated items, so it can be used again. The smell of burnt plastic hangs in the air.

Reichental brags about the print-for-hire services 3D Systems runs out of this facility. Customers will order parts, and Lewis, the production manager, uses special software to arrange them and cram as many objects into one block as possible.

What really has Reichental enthused, though, is 3D System’s foray into affordable printers for consumers. He shows off the early versions of the Cube, which is slated to go on sale in May. Unlike the hobbyist kits, the Cube ships ready to print. People buying the machine will find dozens of 3D printable objects preloaded, meaning they don’t have to learn the nuances of 3D design software right away to make something.

The machine can print in dozens of colors and up to 5½ by 5½ by 5½ inches in size, which is enough to handle objects such as chess pieces, jewelry, and cookie cutters. The Cube’s source material is $50 spools of plastic thread, one of which is enough to make about 15 bracelets capable of holding an iPod Nano. Each bracelet takes 90 minutes to print. You can use software such as Autodesk’s 123D to design your own object or pay for one of the thousands of designs at the 3D Systems Cubify online store — $4.99 for an elephant, $10 for a ring, $15 for a razor handle.

The Cube faces stiff competition in the consumer market. Shapeways, headquartered in New York, is basically the Amazon.com of 3D printing. Its website lets people post product designs and make the objects to order. A coral-shape lamp goes for $760, while trinkets cost just a few dollars. Shapeways also has online design software that lets people personalize things like napkin rings to give their next dinner party added pizzazz. Once you place an order, Shapeways prints the object — often using an industrial machine from 3D Systems or another supplier — and mails it to you.

The unique qualities of 3D printers result in objects that would be near-impossible to create by any other means. You can, for instance, order a ball inside a ball inside a ball inside a ball. “There are other items that have 70 moving parts but are printed as one single piece,” says Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, as he pulls a 3D-printed bikini out of a box. (It’s made not of fabric but rather interlaced rings of plastic woven together by the 3D printers.) The company sells about 100,000 objects per month; most popular are jewelry, iPhone covers, and model trains.

Like the kids in the Lewis family’s garage, Weijmarshausen has a different perspective on consumer products. Since the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers have been forced to worry about the mass appeal of their products. If you went to the pain of designing a lamp, you wanted to be sure that thousands of people would order it and make the production costs worthwhile. That equation has been flipped on its head. A designer can afford to sell things one or 10 at a time because there is no manufacturing cost until the item is actually ordered. As Weijmarshausen puts it, “The basic premise we’re working toward is, everyone should be able to make or buy whatever they want.”


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