Author Topic: 3D printing industry takes shape  (Read 302 times)

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3D printing industry takes shape
« on: January 12, 2014, 10:35:33 PM »
By Peter Svensson

Some of the oddest items on display last week at the International CES gadget show were edible, origami-like sculptures made of sugar, their shapes so convoluted as to baffle the eye.

The treats are one of many signs that we'll all be getting a taste of 3D printing soon and the phenomenon won't be relegated to the realm of engineers and tech enthusiasts.

The sugar sculptures are the output of the ChefJet Pro, the first commercial, kitchen-ready food printer.

It looks like an oven, and deposits sugar layer by layer in a tray, then melts the parts intended for the sculpture with water so they solidify.

Ink can be selectively added to the water so the sculptures come out in full colour, a feature sure to set the minds of wedding and party planners spinning. Next to the geometric sculptures was a wedding cake supported by a delicate lattice-work tower of sugar that would be nearly impossible to make by conventional means.

Oh, and the printer can print in chocolate too.

3D Systems, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, company, expects to sell the full-colour printer for about US$100,000 ($120,430) in the latter half of this year, and a monochrome version for half that price.

Last year, there were only a handful of 3D printing companies at the gadget show. This year, there were 30, and the organisers had to turn others away because they couldn't fit them in. The 3D printing area of the show floor drew dense crowds that gawked at the printers and their creations, which ranged from toys to tea cups to iPhone cases.

Melissa Spencer, a jewellery designer from Los Angeles, was at the show to look for a printer. 3D printers have been used in jewellery-making for a long time, but high prices and poor resolution have limited their use. With prices down and output quality up, it's now possible for an independent designer to buy her own printer, Spencer said.

The printers focus bright ultraviolet light into liquid resin, setting it. That takes time. One printer maker cited seven hours for a batch of five rings. The plastic pieces are then used to create moulds for molten silver, gold or platinum.

Spencer is now toying with the idea of abandoning the reuse of moulds, and using the power of a 3D printer to make every piece a one-off design customised to the buyer. She can show the plastic prototypes to the customer before casting.

With 3D printing, "we're moving to a world of mass customisation," said Shawn Dubravac, an analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on the show. What started with custom-printed T-shirts a la CafePress can now happen in all kinds of industries, he added. It's still a small field, though. He expects that just under 100,000 3D printers will be sold in 2014.

One jewellery company was at CES to demonstrate how it has taken the capabilities of the 3D printer and made them the core of its business. American Pearl, a family-owned company founded in 1950, in November revamped its website to allow shoppers to order custom jewellery. From about 1000 basic designs, the buyers can change metals and stones and order engravings and they can see the results rendered in 3D on their computer screens.

The company prints the orders in 3D in its factory in New York.

The approach lets the company keep prices low while satisfying customers' demands for unique pieces, said American Pearl president Eddie Bakhash. "If you saw the backend of our system, you'd see that every order coming in is different."

The mass customisation capability is useful in unexpected fields. Bre Pettis, the chief executive of New York-based printer manufacturer MakerBot, is proud that a customer, a South African carpenter who had lost four fingers in an accident, figured out how to use a printer to make a mechanical hand for himself.

He distributed the blueprints to other MakerBot users, who can tweak them to fit. "Normally, prosthetics cost tens of thousands of dollars, but with the MakerBot, they cost $5 in materials," Pettis said.

MakerBot unveiled new models at the show, including its biggest one yet, which is the size of a mini-fridge, costs US$6499 and can print objects the size of a human head. It also launched a smaller version, the Replicator Mini, which can create cupcake-sized objects. It will cost US$1375 when it launches this spring.

MakerBot will be undersold, however, by XYZprinting of Taiwan, which plans to sell its Da Vinci printer starting in March in the US for US$499. That's a price that's bound to attract a lot of people who would never have imagined, a year ago, that they'd have a 3D printer in the house.

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