3-D printing changing the way companies do business
Feb 11, 2013 (Richmond Times-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Anyone who has watched late-night infomercials on TV has at least once seen an interesting new product and realized you thought of it first.
Most are frustrated to see something they thought of -- something so simple that it's amazing no one invented it before -- on the screen and making money.
To avoid that happening again, three Virginia Commonwealth University engineering students -- Andrew Goode, Christopher Hathcock and Bryant Overgard -- have started a business that uses a state-of-the-art technology once available only to large firms and manufacturers.
The technology is 3-D printing, and although it has been around for some time, its use is becoming more common among individuals and small businesses.
"The idea of 3-D printing is that you can take an idea (for a product), you can put it in a computer and you can have that idea within a few hours," Overgard said. "When compared with traditional methods of production, (it's) much faster."
3-D printing, they and other experts say, could revolutionize the manufacturing process by giving the little guy access to the same technology as major corporations as well as allowing engineers, inventors and researchers to produce higher-quality products without huge investments of time and money.
Along with manufacturing, 3-D printing could help doctors prepare for complicated surgeries, architects to better understand complex urban developments and scientists to customize artificial limbs for individuals.
When Ford wants to try out a new transmission part, an engineer sends a digital blueprint of the component to a computer, and what happens next once seemed like science fiction.
Inside a device about the size of a microwave oven, a plastic, three-dimensional version of the component begins to take shape before your eyes.
After scanning the design blueprint, the gadget fuses together a paper-thin layer of plastic powder. It repeats, putting another layer on top, and then thousands more, before binding the material together with lasers.
A few hours later, out pops the auto part, ready to be tested.
The cost of such technology: about $1,500.
At such prices, 3-D printers, once an obscure and expensive innovation, are gaining traction among businesses, with broad implications for manufacturing.
Ford is putting them in the hands of every one of its engineers. NASA uses the printers to test parts that could eventually make it to space.
And pretty soon, analysts say, they will be showing up in the home office.
Just a few years ago, 3-D printers were as big as industrial refrigerators and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Now anyone can order one online and put it on a desk.
The printers themselves vary from small desktop versions used by hobbyists and small businesses to industrial-sized printers used by manufacturers. For now, there's not much in between, Goode said.
A smaller home model "is about $1,000, fully assembled and shipped to you, as just a printer. It's basic, low-cost and is considered what's called a hobbyist level," Goode said. "The next grade is your $15,000 printer. And that's more of a professional grade, a higher standard."
That such technology can be offered so cheaply and compactly might be these gadgets' true breakthrough.
"You can argue this is the democratization of manufacturing," said Carl Howe, vice president of consumer research at Yankee Group, a Boston tech research firm.
He predicted that this will be the year when 3-D printers become inexpensive enough to gain wider interest from small businesses, colleges and consumers.
"Things that used to require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for plastic molds, you can now do for $1,500 or less," Howe said.
Kenneth B. Kahn, director at the daVinci Center for Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University and a VCU professor, said an immediate benefit 3-D printing can provide is changing the way companies interact with their customers.
"Where we've used it, and where I've seen a lot of impact, is in the ability to take a concept and put it into a physical form so that you can then show people what your idea is in a three-dimensional space," he said.
For example, he had students working on a project to design packaging for a company. The students were able to take their two-dimensional drawings, animate them with a 3-D printer and hand the finished product over to the client.
"When they (clients) can hold it, they can really understand what it is," Kahn said.
Some are positioning 3-D printing as "the fax machine of the future," he said.
Using the technology that way, a company working in Richmond can send drawings to a manufacturer's 3-D printer in China and create a rapid prototype "so they can see what I'm talking about," he said, and "then your conversation is much deeper."
Kahn, though, said it's still too early to see how big of a commercial impact 3-D printing will have.
For the most part, sophisticated machines are limited to making rapid prototypes and smaller home versions will have a limited appeal to consumers, he said.
But, he sees a time when 3-D printers can show up at brick-and-mortar stores allowing customers to come in to have specially designed products made to order.
Or, a time when someone can go to a retailer's website to find a design online, modify it and have it printed at home.
3-D printing is looked at as a technological wonder, but like any innovation, its use is not purely commercial or altruistic -- it is causing some controversy.
In the weeks after the Dec. 14 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children and six adults dead, a video proposing the use of a 3-D printer to make a copy of a gun that fires real bullets went viral on the Web.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said the creation of guns through 3-D printing could make undetectable plastic firearms too easy to acquire. He called for the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which would include bans on plastic guns and firearms made from 3-D-printed parts.
"It is just a matter of time before these three-dimensional printers will be able to replicate an entire gun," Israel said. "And that firearm will be able to be brought through this security line, through the metal detector, and because there will be no metal to be detected, firearms will be brought on planes without anyone's knowledge."
In addition to those worries, some are concerned with what 3-D printing will do for manufacturing jobs.
"Before, if you were a manufacturer and you wanted to make a product, you had to make 10,000 or 100,000 of them; you had to think in terms of the capital it costs to make that volume," said Bre Pettis, CEO and co-founder of MakerBot, a New York-based 3-D printer. "It takes hours. Now you can iterate on an idea many times in one day and create huge efficiencies."
Goode, Hathcock and Overgard, who decided to go into business together while students at VCU, have launched ABC xyz Printing.
Their goal is to build a company that will work with people as they develop ideas.
In the beginning, they want to help individuals print existing ideas.
But the long-term plan is to take a more comprehensive approach to creating, distributing and selling products.
"We're trying to be a service that provides a solution from A to Z," Overgard said.
The partners say they want to be a full-service type of business that allows clients to tap their expertise as engineers and take advantage of the technology to get products to a larger audience.
They want to use their engineering skills to help people with little or no experience design products or work with those who have designs make improvements.
"And if they don't have the skill or the materials to print it out themselves, we'll have that as well," Overgard said.
"In the end, we want to have the ability to do the mass manufacture of the final product as well."
The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.
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