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3D printers: Almost mainstream

By Robert L. Mitchell, Computerworld
December 21, 2011 10:50 AM ET

Computerworld - Richard Smith needed to build a wall-climbing robot for a customer -- so he printed one.

Smith, director of Smith Engineering Gb Ltd., used a CAD program to design a 3D model of the WallRover, a dual-track roving robot with a spinning rotor in the chassis that creates enough suction to hold the device to a wall. He then sent the design file for each component to a 3D printer, which sliced the objects into sections less than 1/100th of an inch thick by printing it, one layer at a time, using molten ABS plastic as the "ink."

As a 3D printer begins fabricating an object, each layer gets fused or glued to the previous one and the product gradually gets built up. Under the hood, 3D printers use a variety of different fabrication techniques, several of which are based on ink-jet technology, and can use many different types of "build" materials to print three-dimensional objects. (To learn more about the different types of 3D printers, check out our comparison chart.)

Before buying a 3D printer, Smith would send its designs to a service bureau for fabrication, and parts took three or four days to turn around. Had Smith used a service bureau for the WallRover project -- which went through 22 design iterations -- it would have taken six months to complete, Smith says.

Instead, Smith was able to get a final design and fully functional prototype to the client within two weeks.

And he did it using a consumer-grade 3D "plastic jet printer" that he built from a kit. The RapMan, from 3D Systems' Bits From Bytes division, cost just $1,500. Smith spent another $180 for plastic filament -- the "ink" consumed by the printer. "It saved five months of development time and somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000 in models" that were created in-house instead of being sent to a service bureau, he says.

Smaller and cheaper

3D printing isn't new. The manufacturing technique known today as 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing or direct digital manufacturing, has been used for rapid prototyping for decades. But over the last 24 months, prices have dropped to a level that makes it appealing to a wider audience.

The technology is more compact, particularly in the plastic jet-printing category. Cathy Lewis, vice president of global marketing at printer manufacturer 3D Systems Inc., says today's models are "ideal" for personal use.

3D design gets easier

It's relatively easy to use a free tool such as Google SketchUp to create simple objects for 3D printing. But for complex shapes and geometries, designers still reach for professional modeling tools like SolidWorks.

"Visualization software such as Google's SketchUp provides a fast entry route" to 3D computer-aided design (CAD), says Nick Grace, manager of RapidformRCA, which acts as a 3D printing service bureau for students at the Royal College of Art in London and uses many different software design tools and 3D printer technologies.

But, he adds, "the shortcuts made by these tools are not allowed for in the 3D printer's slicing routine." For example, some software may not fully render elements of an object that aren't needed from a particular viewpoint. That causes problems when the file is sent to the 3D printer. "We still regularly get unbuildable surface files or haphazardly constructed and translated data from files that render a perfectly coherent image," he says. In other words, they look fine on screen but won't print correctly.

Originally published on www.computerworld.com. Click here to read the original story.

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