3D Printers and the Transformation of Manufacturing
"Anybody who is new to 3D printing will walk away and remember their first introduction as similar to their first experience with Windows on their PC in 1988, or low-cost digital cellphones in 1996, or Google search on the internet in 1999. Truly transformative."So said "Michael" on the feedback Meetup thread after the company called Solidoodle held a demo/talk of their highly accessible 3D printers in several price ranges. "Made in the USA. Proudly tested," as their handout preens, "in Brooklyn."
"Anybody who is new to 3D printing will walk away and remember their first introduction as similar to their first experience with Windows on their PC in 1988, or low-cost digital cellphones in 1996, or Google search on the internet in 1999. Truly transformative."
So said "Michael" on the feedback Meetup thread after the company called Solidoodle held a demo/talk of their highly accessible 3D printers in several price ranges. "Made in the USA. Proudly tested," as their handout preens, "in Brooklyn."
In fact the company heads speaking in mid-May at 6th Avenue and 45th Street seemed not to realize that for the reasonable price points they charge -- $499, $599, and $799 -- they offer maximal service in the case of shipping snafus or mishandling, flood or other act of misfortune. At those prices, they are underselling themselves when you consider the costs of servicing and maintenance even absent problems with the actual printer, once delivered and set up. It arrives at the customer's welcome mat with no assembly required.
The room, a bare-bones loftlike space on the 6th floor of a wedge building on the Avenue of the Americas, was like a garage start-up. Ergonomic chairs, a lot of work benches and slab tables, a small U-shaped set of sofas around a messy coffee table with opened bags of M&Ms and Cheetos scattered around. A corner portion of the 4,000 sq. ft. spare space was set out with folding chairs with a screen set up for graphic illustration of speaker points. The mixed audience was some 80 people, a good crowd on a balmy Friday night. Soda and juice was set up on a nearby folding table.
Solidoodle, founded in late 2011 by aeronautical engineer and 3D printer industry-veteran Sam Cervantes, builds "affordable 3D printers for both professional and consumer use." Solidoodle was named among CNET's "Best of NY Tech Day 2012" out of more than 200 tech startups. They are now up to Solidoodle 4, and amusing 'secret' ref was made to its characteristics, cost and overall presentation later this year.
Once you've got things started, the process to creating the device or doodad or part you program in is fairly straightforward. As with the Replicator, its predecessor at MakerBot, there's some calibration required, as things tend to get slightly jostled in transit and having moving parts off by even a fraction can severely impact the final result. The heated platform keeps the ABS spooled plastic in place; if you want to ensure that the ABS doesn't curl up, they recommend you spritz on a layer of hairspray onto the heat platform. (New sensible applications for old products.)
Attendees spanned from high school types to men and women with decades written on their foreheads and grey hair. Many, almost half, of the eager listeners were Asian, a goodly sprinkling of those being women, too, many stylish and easily identified as artistic. The 3D printer setup can generate (they don't really love the term "printing," preferring the more natural "making" or "manufacturing" to that 2D-print concept, according to their CEO, Sam Cervantes) small parts and gadgets, pieces of machinery too trivial or no longer made or too inexpensive to be worth a company's while to manufacture.
Volumes possible with the low-end base model ($499), on a print area of 6"x6"x6" are from 216 in (3) to 512 in (3). The largest model ($799) offers a "doubled print volume" of 8"x8"x8". Prior 3D printers sold in the realm of $2,000.
But a smart and obvious use is creative. There were bronze-inflected busts of Albert Einstein, put together, we were told, by a number of chunks of the head and neck, then put together much like, we hypothesized, the gargantuan Bartholdi Lady Liberty was in 1886 (assembled from over 300 separate crates and put together where it resides today) but on a much less grand scale.
The Solidoodle printer was engineered by an aerospace wiz of "rugged steel frames capable of supporting the weight of a 200-lb. male." Available for home use, and priced well within the average electronic fan's pocket, it is also sturdy enough for business and professional usage. A video of the solidoodle at work can be seen here.
As my distance techno-muse, Richard, says about the future of the 3D printer: "[3D printing] is labor intensive and makes items one at a time. It can compete on timeliness or need for an obsolete part, but not on knocking out tchatchkas by the gazillion," where China, Vietnam and South Korea will still outproduce for under-cost. The maven is wise in his assessment.
According to Sylvan, a svelte Frenchman who is a principal in the London office, the Solidoodle is 2 years old, almost, and is sold on "four continents, and in use in 60 countries." Their total sales as to mid-May 2013 were $6,000,000. Though this is a modest revenue, it is only a matter of time before earnings stack up impressively.
As we left the premises, two enterprising millennials representing their rival company, Design X, approached us, handing us their cards and inviting us to the current show at the Javits. The Javits booth they occupy showcases more of what Solidoodle offers. To our question about manufacturing/printing larger-scale objects than circuit boards and amusing plastic thingamajigs, they advised us that yes, megaprinters were already available and manufacturing sizable objects like furnishings and similar objects.
Current printers feature heated build platforms in acrylic (Lego material) or metal, ABS filament spool holder(s), and interior lighting. Some models feature acrylic hoods and front doors so that the printers resemble blocky microwaves. They occupy only a modest space in your layout, apartment or house. (Garage or trailer.) And many in the audience expressed an interest in buying one within the year.
CEO Cervantes smiled as he remarked that people buying one often find in a short time that they want to purchase a second, for additional flexibility with building devices, small parts or art creation. Scanners for gauging precise dimensions are another necessary component. One woman was scanned, but the resolution on the nearby screen was too jittery to provide much direction for generating a small-scale plastic representation of her head.
Our interest is in the short-term future, where specialty programming will replace the now-common filament spools in a variety of Day-Glo colors -- acid green, blaze orange, alien yellow -- with specialty organic cells taken from one's own body, segmented, and used to generate new organs to replace or supplement one's own, or replace when one has had a removed, injured or damaged organ.
The future of medicine, no less than of manufacturing, stands to be transformed, just as the Meetup's "Stephen" envisioned.