3D Printing Takes Shape

3-D printers that spit out three-dimensional objects in the comfort of your own home or business are finally edging toward viability. The technology could radically change manufacturing and buying patterns in the years ahead. An estimated 30,000+ units are currently in use, and that number could extend into the millions within a decade.

The machines, which transform blueprints into actual objects — anything from drinking cups to industrial components — promise a lower manufacturing cost model. 3D printing could also speed up supply chains and reduce carbon footprints associated with packing and shipping items around the world.

3D printers build objects layer by layer using polymers and other materials. The process can take minutes or hours, depending on the complexity of the item. Designers and manufacturers are already turning to these devices to produce rapid prototypes, models, and specialty items. Surgeons and dentists are using them to replace conventional impressions and plaster casts. They?re also being used in an array of other fields, including educational and scientific environments.

A number of companies, including 3D Systems, EOS, Stratasys and ZCorporation offer commercial grade models that typically cost $40,000 or more. But prices for 3D printers are dropping rapidly. For example, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic costs $1,299.00. MakerBot describes its 3D printer as ?the latest in cutting edge personal manufacturing technology.? It lets you print from CAD software and other images on a computer via a USB port or using an SD card. The data can originate from a sketch and measurement, a photo or as a file from a manufacturer.

A company called iMaterialize also handles 3D printing on demand. Obtaining an object is as simple as uploading a file and placing an order online.

There are concerns about these devices. They can be used to steal or produce illegal objects such as keys, guns and counterfeit parts. Crooks have already tried to fabricate ATM skimmers using the technology. Although it?s also possible to produce these items using conventional technology, 3D printing greatly simplifies and speeds the process. And, as Public Knowledge staff attorney Michael Weinberg points out in a white paper, copyright and intellectual property risks exist. ?Today?s examples of 3D printing will inevitably appear primitive in five, ten or twenty years.?

Nobody knows exactly what direction 3D printing will go in the coming years, or what restrictions might apply, but the technology could make an indelible imprint on the future of product design and manufacturing.