The 3D printing industry is doubling annually, and it will be huge at CES® 2016 (CES Tech West, Sands Level 2). According to Gartner, worldwide shipments of 3D printers will reach 496,475 units in 2016, up 103 percent year over year. Sales are expected to double every year, reaching 5.6 million units per year by 2019.
You’ll find almost every type of 3D printer at CES. Here’s a quick guide to help you determine which 3D printing technology may have an immediate impact on your business, and if you’re thinking about buying one, which 3D printer might be right for you.
3D Printing Is More than Just Making and Rapid Prototyping
If you follow the maker movement, you’ve seen plenty of 3D printing demonstrations resulting in single-color Yoda heads or edible ribbon candy or jewelry or even an occasional replacement part. But 3D printing is maturing quickly. It has wide-ranging uses across the manufacturing spectrum from prototyping to high-volume production, and it is quickly changing the fundamental nature of factories worldwide. Let’s look at four impactful ways to use 3D printing.
No matter what kind of three-dimensional object you are designing, a concept model can help you choose the right design path, reduce cost or simply shorten your development cycle. 3D printers are perfect for this type of work. You just need to pay attention to print speed, part cost, quality of the output and, depending upon your technical acumen, ease of use.
High-resolution 3D printers can be used to create parts and sub-assemblies to help verify and test design elements. You can use 3D printed parts for assembly verification and functional performance testing and, of course, to have a hands-on experience with your design. When thinking about a 3D printer for functional prototyping, you must pay careful attention to the specifications for build volume, accuracy (resolution), materials and color printing capabilities.
Some of the most creative uses for 3D printed objects fall into the category of pre-production applications. You can print jigs, molds, spacers, fixtures, sacrificial production enablers and short-run tools to quickly enable traditional manufacturing methods. Some examples include 3D printed molds for vacuum forming and tooling for hydroforming. 3D printers for pre-production applications must be specified for high accuracy and repeatability and, just as importantly, the materials must be carefully evaluated for functional performance.
Most 3D printed demonstration objects have a “look.” This is because the technology enables virtually unlimited geometry. You don’t tend to fasten 3D printed objects together by drilling holes in them; you tend to print 3D objects around the holes. This allows for unparalleled design freedom and may ultimately introduce new levels of functionality as 3D printing comes of age. For true digital manufacturing, printers need to be capable of handling the appropriate materials for your production run and have high marks for precision, accuracy, repeatability and production capacity.
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
Having touched on four ways 3D printers are changing the world, let’s focus on the six attributes that must be considered before purchasing a 3D printer.
How fast is this 3D printer? Great question, but print speed is not the answer. You’re interested in knowing the total time it takes to build a 3D object from a computer file. To calculate file-to-finished-part speed, you must combine build preparation time (part placement, support generation, etc.), print speed (inches per hour in the Z-direction on a single print job), post-processing time (rinsing, UV post curing, manual support removal, or depowdering) and any optional finishing time (polishing, dying, painting, etc.). It will also be worth taking a hard look at how easy or intuitive the printer’s software and user interface are to navigate. True print speed is a function of specifications and the application of expert trade craft.
For makers, concept modelers and prototypers, cost per part is really not a factor. The value of a 3D printer is how it empowers creativity. For pre-production tools and digital manufacturing, the cost per part has almost nothing to do with how much material each part contains. Aside from materials cost, you must consider labor costs, the amortized cost of the printer, build prep time, print speed, post-processing and optional finishing time.
Resolution and Accuracy
In 3D printing, resolution is usually equated to smoothness. Sometimes the specification is stated in number of microns or DPI (dots per inch) or layer thickness. This nomenclature is useful only when comparing identical types of 3D printers. If you are trying to decide which type of 3D printer is right for your application, you will have to visually inspect the output. There is no better way. Are the edges smooth to the touch? Is the printer capable of fine detail that will suit your needs? You may need a microscope to check for sidewall quality or precision of corners, circles, edges and minimum feature size and other characteristics. Then, you’ll need to check for accuracy. Is the printer you are considering capable of producing hundreds of identical (by specification) parts? Resolution and accuracy are critical features of any 3D printer purchase.
The list of materials you can 3D print with is vast and ever expanding. Plastic, ceramic, glass, textiles, metal, wood, organic material, and food are only some of the possible materials. Many printers have the ability to print in more than one material at a time or have both high- and low-temperature printing capabilities. Prices dramatically vary based upon materials requirements. In many cases, it is less expensive to buy two specialized printers than one with multi-material capabilities.
There are two aspects of capacity. One is object output size. When prototyping, full-size output is critical because joining two sub-assemblies that will ultimately be manufactured as one part will often yield inaccurate test results. On the other hand, if you are simply creating concept models, joining two parts to make a larger part may not matter at all. Size matters. Pick the printer that is right for your application. Then there is output capacity, sometimes referred to as duty cycle. If you need to make thousands of copies of a part, or run your printer 24 hours each day, you are going to need a production-level printer. Makers? Not so much.
There are basically three categories of 3D color printers: those that print one or a few colors using colored materials, those that print in a few dozen colors, and full-color printers. Some very sophisticated units can print half-tones or even dither (an intentionally applied form of noise used to randomize quantization error) the colors. As you can imagine, there is a huge price difference between a 3D printer that prints ABS plastic models in up to three colors at a time and a 3D printer that can take a CMYK pre-press file and create a 3D object that looks painted.
If the Factory Is Everywhere, Everyone Is a Designer
Turning bits to atoms (making physical objects from digital files) creates significant design opportunities for open-source communities and promises to dynamically change the manufacturing paradigm. We’ll thoroughly cover 3D printing on our CES® 2016 ShellyPalmer Floor Tours and in our upcoming 2016 CE Trend Report. See you in Las Vegas in January.