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3D Printing

Conjuring Your Imagination


Conjuring Your Imagination


Once upon a time, casting a mold for a new product could take weeks. Now, your model is ready in 10 minutes. A competitive revolution for small companies, 3D printing could nullify the edge of the big corporations.



Conjuring Your Imagination

By Hsiao-Wen Wang, Yuan Chou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 525 )

At No. 298 Mulberry St. in NoHo – the Lower Manhattan neighborhood just north of SoHo – sits the storefront in which former Seattle art teacher Bre Pettis, founder of 3D printer company MakerBot, first set up shop.

The tiny shop in the cinderblock structure brought the wonders of 3D printing to younger generations of ordinary Americans. Arrayed along one wall were spools of polymer filament in 35 different colors, one US$48 spool of which being enough to print about 30 cellphone cases.

Sporting a wild, Einsteinian hairdo, African-American designer Tristan Hinds is preparing to print out plans for kids toys he has drawn up using Tinkercad software. On weekends, Hinds can always be found here in the shop teaching kids how to design their own toys and print them out, helping America's leaders of tomorrow to reconnect with the feeling of creating something with their hands.

MakerBot debuted its US$2,199 3D printer last year, an event the US media subsequently referred to as this century's "Macintosh Moment."

That is a reference to a small group of like-minded Silicon Valley engineers who in 1975 founded the "Homebrew Computer Club," thus inadvertently displacing the IBM-led computer mainframe industry by bringing personal computers into individual homes and spurring development of a new, now trillion-dollar industry. MakerBot could well put "desktop manufacturing" in every home.

Reducing Costs, Saving Time

According to data from market research agency Wohlers Associates, sales of 3D printers have been growing at a 30 percent annual clip, reaching US$2.5 billion in 2011. In just the last four years, MakerBot has sold more than 10,000 units and cannot keep up with demand.

"Rather than the personal computer, we have personal manufacturing," Chris Anderson, a former editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, excitedly told CommonWealth Magazine.

At one stroke, 3D printing dramatically reduces costs and hastens the development process.

Whereas manufacturing ventures were once required to put up the capital to have molds cast and were bound by minimum production runs to control costs through economies of scale, 3D printing allows small companies to manufacture after receiving orders, eliminating waste and the need to maintain inventory. The only inventory is the 3D design graphics stored in the computer software. Even more important is the "mass customization" that is now becoming a mainstream market trend.

Nokia is now offering consumers their choice of cellphone cases which they will print to order for customers.

Through use of 3D printing, Adidas has reduced evaluation periods for new sneaker designs from the previous four to six weeks, to just one or two days now. Whereas the company once needed 12 technicians to craft its sneaker soles, with 3D printing, only two are required.

The United States is zeroing in on this new technology to stimulate advanced manufacturing industries.

In his State of the Union address this past February, U.S. president Barack Obama declared 3D printing to be the technological revolution that would allow America to take the lead in global manufacturing of the future.

Obama proposed spending US$1 billion to fund creation of 15 research centers focused on manufacturing innovation, one of which would be dedicated to 3D printing technology.

With a century of experience in manufacturing aircraft engines, General Electric is now looking at ways of applying 3D printing technology to the repair of fan blades on turbine generators. They expect to be able to produce 100,000 high-precision, high-tensile strength aircraft engine parts through 3D printing technology by 2020.

Someday, people will print entire aircraft engines, Christine Furstoss, global technology director for manufacturing and materials technologies at GE Global Research, told CommonWealth Magazine, picking up off the table a shiny titanium flower a co-worker had given her. Delicate detailing no longer need be sculpted – one can simply print it, she says.

Meanwhile, scientists at Xerox Research Center have developed an electrically conductive silver ink that can be used to produce entire printed circuit boards.

Corporate titans such as Samsung, Siemens, Daimler and Canon have all begun using breakthrough 3D printing technology in the manufacturing process.

The Microfactory Is Born

It's not just corporate giants that have embraced 3D printing technology. The U.S. government has been hugely supportive, hoping that 3D printing technology can spark a wave of small- and medium-sized start-ups and create employment opportunities.

Last year, the 51 year-old Anderson walked away from his 11-year stint at Wired to become founder and CEO of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company 3D Robotics and get a real taste of the "third industrial revolution."

About 20 minutes outside of downtown San Diego, a nondescript gray building houses the 3D Robotics corporate HQ and R&D division.

In a corner of the roughly 3,500 sq. ft. research center sits a gray cabinet about the size of a refrigerator. It's hard to believe, but this is the premier weapon in the third industrial revolution: a 3D printer. This particular unit was brought in by 25 year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed engineer Alan Sanchez to design and manufacture UAV components.

Walking further on one enters another 3,500 sq. ft. space that houses the production department. This is where the "eyes" of the UAVs are made – the production line for the GPS chips. The three automated machines inside here require just one technician to operate and can crank out 300 thumbnail-sized chips per day within their designated half of the production department.

The entirety of the plant's operations require a staff of just 20-plus 20-something engineers to keep running. They keep touch with clients via social media. Whenever suggestions appear on line, they're ready to alert the production department of what tweaks need to be made.

The combination of 3D printing, automated equipment and Internet social networks has become the new face of American manufacturing start-ups.

Global Supply Chain Disintegrating

Yet just as 3D printing has begun to provide designers and consumers with the "designs of their dreams," it has also begun to disrupt the existing industrial supply chain.

As the research group Transport Intelligence contends, 3D printing may well prompt a total collapse in the global supply chain, with potentially huge ramifications in the global balance of trade as "offshoring" gives way to manufacturers returning to home markets.

This particular wave of the new industrial revolution seems to be cresting on this side of the Pacific.

Facing the brunt of the impact here will be Taiwan's "mother of industries," the metalworking, mold and die casting sector, which generates an output value of NT$50 billion per year.

"Within five years, walk into any convenience store and you'll see a 3D printer," Hiwin Technologies founder and chairman Eric Chuo maintains. Within eight to ten years, 3D printing will be the mainstream in manufacturing industries, he continues. If Taiwan fails to get into the game early enough and develop its own 3D printing equipment, it will remain under the corporate boot heel of Europe, the United States and Japan and be relegated to low profit-margin, low-end work, he warns.

The Industrial Technology Research Institute's South Campus has been aggressively pursuing 3D printing technology research. It has already printed out prosthetic canine hip joints that were successfully transplanted into a golden retriever over ten years old.

"How Taiwan is to go about using 3D technology in driving higher value in the medical instruments, automotive and mold/die casting industries is the most important question for the future of the manufacturing sector," says Liu Meng-chun, director of the Center for Economic Forecasting at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy