I recently attended a fun and innovative event, the MecklerMedia Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo. Alan Meckler and MecklerMedia also hosted the early 1990s Meckler Virtual reality conferences that were key events in the early history of the field so I was familiar with this organization’s quality events. A friend from those days Marily Reed had invited me and I was excited to attend and learn more about 3D printing. The vibe was quite similar to those early VR events with small entrepreneurs mixing it up with bigger corporate players in a still mostly undefined market space.
While I’ve seen the 3D printing technology before, this was a great chance to get up to date on the latest generation of commercially available 3D printing gear and to meet some of the people at the leading and bleeding edge of innovation. I only attended the exposition portion of the show but there were also a number of interesting presentations and technical talks.
We hear a lot about the disruptive potential of 3D printing and it’s relative additive manufacturing. But the existing devices aren’t quite there yet. It seems it might be a few years yet before we get an interesting consumer device and no one is showing anything like imagined molecular printers. There weren’t any food or organ printers shown either, although I understand these were covered during the presentations.
The potential future of 3D printing is vast, but the present state of the art limits applications to prototyping and design by sophisticated users. Let’s take a look at what you can actually get today.
While there are some large vendors with fancy gear, their customers are largely industrial manufacturers and existing product manufacturing companies not the individual consumer. There is a large gap between the amazing machines we read about and the actual machines we can buy.
However, for the sophisticated systems designer, rapid prototyper, or small product design shop, 3D printing is nothing short of revolutionary. Small parts can be rapidly produced tested and refined in house without delays. Ideas can be experimented with and tested with virtually no manufacturing risk. Previously designers generally had to ship concepts out of house and wait weeks to see them realized. And when design problems were discovered, this cycle had to be repeated, sometimes more than once.
The current state of the art allows a variety of designers access to the technology at various levels of fidelity and price. Software tools run the gamut from “easy to use” tools designed for the beginner to sophisticated product design and CAD environments like Strata. The difference in capabilities between low end and high end software is vast not unlike the early VR development toolkits and environments.
Some printers are small desktop units, while others are refrigerator sized cabinets. Specialized printing devices, CNC machines and various other machines are too large or difficult to transport. These weren’t shown at the event but some of the resulting fabricated parts were displayed.
Of course sophisticated products often involve more than just structural components, and that means 3D printed parts including various metal CNC or laser sintered parts, are only part of the total solution. Systems include a variety of electro-mechanical mechanisms, digital electronics, custom optics, and parts and subsystems which simply can not be printed at this time. And even printed devices need to be assembled by hand in most cases.
One of the recent developments in 3D printing is the ability to print full color 3D models. Several companies showed this capability but two stood out. WhiteCloud prints architectural models in full color/ Shown below were two models of future city concepts.
The cost of these models is a bit unclear, but their brochure pricing and the fact that these were all locked up behind glass suggests each of these costs several hundred dollars at least to produce.
Another vendor Artec presented a full body scanner that was used to produce a 3D printed full color full body “3D selfie” for $100. They advertise a throughput of ten customers per hour maximum, the selfie is produced in about 15 minutes, and the unit costs $180,000 to purchase.
Although sustainable “closed loop” manufacturing is all the rage, only two companies showed recycling units. The ExtrusionBot E2 print recycler crunches objects up to 5×5 inches back into usable printing material and has motorized operations so you don’t need to turn a crank by hand to crush that bad print back into useful feed material.
One of the things that surprised me was that few of the vendors were giving away 3D printed items as spiffs or promotional items. It seems a natural and yet the high cost of prints seemed to prohibit it.
These soda can handles cost enough, for example, that the company wasn’t giving them away.
Products produced by the least expensive 3D printers have a sort of rough finish that seems “crude” to consumers used to products produced by other processes.
And the most commonly used print materials are not safe for use as kitchen utensils or medical products either.
A few vendors showed higher quality metal and even ceramic parts. but in general everything shown was plastic, somewhat fragile, and sometimes valuable enough to be locked up in a case.
Probably the most overheard phrase at this event was “please don’t touch”.
One company was showing products developed for medical use, but these aren’t produced with the standard low cost 3D printers that were in abundance at the expo. Generally nothing this specialized was shown in a real 3D printing display.
Recently in the news, Made in Space, had the world’s first zero G 3D printer on display. This prototype device doesn’t really print useful parts however, but it is a proof of concept that will eventually lead to things like printing small satellites and replacement parts on demand in orbit. A nice idea I thought, the company was soliciting ideas for items to print in space from attendees.
Two areas where I’d love to see 3D printing take off art in the arts and toy making. These two items were made with a conventional 3D printer. The figurine on the left was painted by hand and is made from 3 large pieces. The skull is one solid piece.
Perhaps the coolest toys were from Kram-Co which was founded by a veteran toy industry designer. It shows in their look and the details of their work. A robotic bunny will set you back about $90 and I wonder how durable these items would be if real kids played with them.
Prices will of course be declining over time and the availability of a low cost home printer could change the toy industry forever. Imagine a programmable toy maker capable of loading designs from anywhere in the world and which encouraged and enabled kids to make and share their own designs. I liked the Kram-Co folks and I will be watching their evolution.
Best feature of the show was the GIANT RED BUTTON used on the control interface of this professional level SLA based 3D Systems PROJET printer which left you wondering why the other systems didn’t have a similar safety precaution.