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The Fab Future of Desktop Manufacturing


by Glen Emerson Morris
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With oil heading for $100 a barrel, and some analysts saying $200+ a barrel is possible, it's worth considering how the American economy could adjust to those prices. It might even be necessary to consider it. It's been estimated that if China were to reach the same per capita consumption of oil as Mexico, it would double the current worldwide demand for oil. Add India to the equation and $200 a barrel oil might be a bargain.

Fortunately, a technology is evolving that will make the cost of oil, and its effect on commerce, far less significant than it is today. Since my 2001 column "The Object of 3D Printing," there have been remarkable refinements in the development of what could be called desktop manufacturing (DTM), or as the book "Fab" calls it, personal fabrication. Desktop manufacturing will alter business, and life in general, as fundamentally as personal computers and the Internet have, and DTM is just about ready for prime time.

There are two basic types of desktop manufacturing systems, additive and subtractive. Additive systems print objects from scratch, usually by fusing a variety of materials with a laser. Subtractive systems start with a piece of material and cut away the part not needed, also usually using a laser. A variety of both systems are on the market today, and are evolving at a rapid rate. (Major manufacturers of 3D printers include Zcorp, Dimension, Designcraft and 3D Systems.)

Desktop manufacturing will likely go through three phases. In the first phase, DTM will be limited to rapid prototype development. In the second phase, DTM systems will be used to create the finished product. In the third phase, DTM systems will be owned and used by consumers as just another computer peripheral, much like 2D printers are today.

In phase one, the main market for 3D printing was for rapid prototyping. The stereo printers required for this could cost $250,000 or more, limiting ownership to a few specialty firms that offered their services to the general business community. Now, even better printers are available for under $25,000, making them cost effective for in-house use. Many of the units at this price can print an object directly from standard CAD files with the color, texture and finish identical to a mass produced unit (including full color labeling and a surface resolution of 16 microns (.0006 of an inch). The only major limitation is that the cost per unit can't compete with those that are mass produced.

Other limitations of early 3D printing systems are disappearing fast. Early models could only print objects made out of laser-hardened acrylic. Newer models can print with a wide variety of materials. One company has developed a device that can print with living cells. Need a new liver, clone the right cells and print one. Another 3D printer can print electronic circuits, and is able to print a fully functional television remote control unit (though as of now, without the batteries). It's only a matter of time before home printers can print a computer motherboard, or a DVD player.

In phase two of desktop manufacturing, retailers will begin to have 3D printers and create highly customized products for customers on demand. According to a story from New Scientist, a British company has developed a 3D printer that prints shoes out of a nylon compound. The customer's feet are scanned by a computer, and so is their walking gate. A custom sole is then designed based on that information, and the rest of the shoe is built around it. Initially, the shoes will be rather expensive and sold primarily to athletes, but in time the average shoe store will offer shoes made this way.

Subtractive desktop manufacturing systems are even further along. Generally speaking, subtractive systems are far cheaper to make. For five or six thousand dollars it's possible to buy a desktop laser cutter that's capable of cutting patterns in thin pieces of glass, metal or wood. Products made with them are already being sold directly to consumers.

Companies using desktop laser cutters, like Mountaineer Precision Products, are already marketing a variety of building kits for model train layouts. These companies have a major advantage over companies making plastic building kits in that the process doesn't require the creation of an expensive mould, or an equally expensive plastic press to make copies with. Without the costs of these two items to amortize, the retail cost of each kit is comparable to that of plastic kits, even with very small production runs in a variety of scales. Simple kits like a barn can go for as little as $10. Some of the more elaborate kits like train stations or steel factories sell for $100 or more, but again, a comparable kit in plastic or photo-etched brass is about the same. A further bonus for companies using the desktop laser cutter process is that they don't have to keep a large inventory of finished kits on hand. They just keep a supply of wood, and create the finished kits as they receive orders for them.

In the following phase of desktop manufacturing, phase 3, consumers will own DTM systems themselves. Some analysts are saying the price might drop to the $500 range in a few years. At that point, customers will just buy patterns for what they need, and make it themselves.

Since the industrial revolution began, modern economies have been modeled on centralized manufacturing. Resources were shipped to a few major manufacturing plants and the products bulk shipped to regional distribution centers. From there products were again bulk shipped to local warehouses, and finally to local retailers. This system is based on cheap oil, take that out of the equation, and the economics become problematic very quickly.

Desktop manufacturing could eliminate the need for centralized manufacturing for many household goods, allowing them to be produced locally, from materials either made or recycled locally, and with minimal shipping costs. For much of history, this was the way economies worked. It may be time to try that approach again. The way things are going, we might not have much choice.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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