High Quality 3-D Printing Hits the Masses, Changes Manufacturing Forever

Prototypes of the Replicator 2 by MakerBot producing plastic figures

The latest affordable 3-D printer will “allow you to turn CAD files into physical things as easily as printing a photo,” according Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson. Anderson recently wrote on a new breakthrough in 3-D printing: the Replicator 2 home 3-D printer by MakerBot, a company with 125 workers changing the future of manufacturing from its factory in Brooklyn, NY. In recent years, MakerBot raised $10 million from investors like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in order to produce this game-changing printer. Unlike most other affordable 3-D printers, including the 13,000 MakerBot has sold since 2009, the Replicator 2 won’t require any complicated assembly or advanced knowledge of computer programming—traits that formerly kept 3-D printing in the hands of the technological elite. Anderson writes:

The Replicator 2 isn’t a kit; it doesn’t require a weekend of wrestling with software that makes Linux look easy. Instead, it’s driven by a simple desktop application, and it will allow you to turn CAD files into physical things as easily as printing a photo. The entry-level Replicator 2, priced at $2,199, is for generating objects up to 11 by 6 inches in an ecofriendly material; the higher-end Replicator 2X, which costs $2,799, can produce only smaller items, up to 9 by 6 inches, but it has dual heads that let it print more sophisticated objects. With these two machines, MakerBot is putting down a multimillion-dollar wager that 3-D printing has hit its mainstream moment.

Unlike the jerry-built contraptions of the past, the Replicator 2s are sleek, metal, and stylish: MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis likens the design to “Darth Vader driving Knight Rider’s KITT car while being airlifted by a Nighthawk spy plane.” There is also the lighting. Oh, the lighting. “LEDs are part of our core values as a company,” Pettis jokes. The new machine will glow in any hue—”to match the color of your couch,” he says, “or like something in the movie Tron.”

You’ve heard of 3-D printers, but you probably don’t own one yet. Pettis thinks the Replicator 2 will change that. [1]

Even those with no experience with CAD can use the printer, thanks to pre-designed object templates that can be downloaded from free design libraries like MakerBot’s own Thingiverse that host premade CAD files available to do just about anything you can imagine. As Anderson puts it, 3-D printing is now “simply a matter of downloading [designs], modifying them if necessary, and sending them to the MakerBot to be printed.”

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis with figures produced by the Replicator 2

3-D printers have been around for a few years but haven’t exactly hit it off yet. So what’s changed now, and why should you buy one? Essentially, the technology has improved so drastically in both usability and quality that 3-D printing can finally compete on the same level with traditional injection-molding manufacturing. Whereas most 3-D printers print at 200-250 microns (the 3-D equivalent of dots per inch), the Replicator 2 prints at 100 (for comparison’s sake, a typical period [.] is about 615 microns wide). MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis compares this time in history to the “Macintosh moment” of nearly thirty years ago, when PCs went from hard-to-use and unproductive machines owned exclusively by programmers to machines that would come to enrich the lives of ordinary people:

All of this adds up to a risky time for MakerBot, but Pettis sees the demonstration effect as key: Just as with the early PCs, the appeal of the devices can’t quite be understood until they’re seen in action. “Before people buy a MakerBot, they think of all the practical applications—all the stuff they can cross off their ‘honey-do’ list, the things they can fix around the house”—broken parts on the bike or the dishwasher, or a new toothbrush holder to fit a tight space. “But once they have it,” Pettis says, “their mind flips a switch. They start printing out amazing things, wonderful things.”

They make jewelry, geometric brainteasers, absurdist sculptures. Their children ask for wild toys, and the users can conjure these up before their eyes, first on a screen and then in the real world. Indeed, Pettis estimates that when MakerBot first started, half of its operators were programmers, but now he has seen a huge influx of parents.

The kids themselves are a given; as I’ve learned with my own children, they already understand natively how to work with 3-D geometries onscreen, thanks to videogames… Much as the first generation of software entrepreneurs were kids like the young Bill Gates, who grew up with the first machines and intuitively grasped their potential, so the next generation of 3-D-printing innovators may be children.

In fact, MakerBot is opening a storefront and mini-manufacturing operation in Manhattan that Pettis expects to appeal mostly to children. Besides selling new printers, the store will feature several working Replicators and allow customers to produce custom products. Pettis says, “I expect tour buses to stop by and kids’ faces to be glued to the window displays as they watch products getting manufactured before their eyes.” Moreover, whereas older 3-D printers used abrasive industrial plastics, the Replicator 2 uses a natural cornstarch based plastic that “smells like waffles” when melted for printing, which should make the store experience pretty awesome.

Close-up of “PolyBend” printed in orange plastic on a Replicator 2 by MakerBot artist-in-residence Marius Watz

According to Anderson, 3-D printing isn’t just fun, it’s also highly efficient. Unlike competitive products like CNC mill, which are “subtractive” and drill away excess material to reveal the solid product, 3-D printers can make products mostly hollow yet strong, thus using less plastic.

When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up… Software first examines the CAD file for an object and figures out how to make it printable using the least amount of material and time. Take, for example, a robot figurine. The external walls will be printed according to the specs, but their thickness can vary, depending on the material; the software will calculate the best thickness to print for sufficient strength while minimizing the amount of material used. Typically the inside of the body is not visible, so there is no need to print it. But without any interior structure, the figurine could wind up too fragile. So the software might make a honeycomb-like support matrix to provide maximum rigidity with minimal material.

The software then “slices” the object into horizontal layers as thin as the printer can handle. As the printer head moves over the build area, it deposits material along the perimeter of the object, with the software picking a path that minimizes the distance the head must move. Then, once a slice is finished, the printer’s build platform moves down a tiny fraction of an inch and the head traces the next slice, laying down another layer of material. And so it goes, layer by layer, until the object is finished.

The whole process is almost magical to watch. That’s the beauty of digital fabrication. You don’t need to know how the machines work or how to optimize their tool paths; software figures all that out. We’re moving toward an era when, just like with your 2-D printer, you don’t have to think about how your 3-D printer works, only what you want to produce with it.

3-D printing not only has the potential to bring less experienced users like children into the field—it will likely change manufacturing forever. Small startup companies like 3D Robotics, a company co-founded by Anderson that makes personal drones, could benefit greatly from this technology, which would allow it to build custom parts cheaply. In fact, MakerBot’s game-changing 3-D printer is exactly the kind of innovation Anderson predicted in his 2006 book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, which anticipated the end of one-size-fits-all mass production and the rise of niche, highly customized products.

Colorful “Little Pots” created by a 3-D printer

That vision is finally complete and reflected his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which comes out October 2, 2012. Anderson observes a new global wave of entrepreneurship in manufacturing as tooling and infrastructure become both more customized and less expensive. Traditional manufacturing has high barriers to entry since each component produced requires a custom-tooled injection mold, which might cost around $10,000—about the cost of four Replicator 2s. 3-D printing has the potential to seriously change manufacturing mostly because of the sheer difference in costs involved. However, Anderson stresses that traditional manufacturing isn’t going away—it’s just getting competition:

That doesn’t mean we’ll 3-D print everything. The big win of the digital-manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between mass production and customization. Just because you can make a million rubber duckies in your garage doesn’t mean you should: Made on a 3-D printer, the first ducky might run you just $20, but sadly so will the millionth—there is no economy of scale. If you injection-mold your ducks in a factory, though, the old fashioned way, the first may cost $10,000—for tooling the mold—but every one after that amortizes the initial outlay. By the time you’ve made a million, they cost just pennies apiece for the raw material. For small batches of a few hundred duckies, digital fabrication now wins. For big batches, the old analog way is still best.

But think about how many products actually make more sense in batches of hundreds, not millions. For this Long Tail of Things, the only option a few decades ago was handcrafting. Today digital fabricators can bring automated processes and near-perfect quality to the smallest batches.

Digital fabrication also takes the expensive parts of traditional manufacturing and makes them cheap. In mass production, the more complicated a product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: The traits that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free. Consider:

Variety is free: It costs no more to make every product different than to make them all the same.

Complexity is free: A minutely detailed product, with many fiddly little components, can be 3-D printed as cheaply as a plain block of plastic.

Flexibility is free: Changing a product after production has started means just changing the instruction code.

Multi-color printing makes standard parts, like brackets, canvases for expression

Perhaps the most exciting part of this manufacturing revolution is that there’s no longer a good reason to produce components that look identical. Digital 3-D printers could be programmed to add random flourishes of color or texture to products like toys or plastic pens and make products a lot more exciting than those you’ll find today in any big-box store.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 went on sale September 19 and comes in at $2,199.

Chris Anderson’s books The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More and his forthcoming Makers: The New Industrial Revolution are available on Amazon.com.


[1] “The New MakerBot Replicator Might Just Change Your World,” Chris Anderson, Wired

Images via
Wired on MakerBot and 3-D printing

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