Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cheap 3D copying is enabling new Innovations

There's a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal today on 3D printers that allow companies to create rapid prototypes.

For those of you who have no idea what a "3D Printer" is - imagine a machine looking very similar to an office photocopying machine - only rather than spitting out paper and ink copies of the intern's backside - it sprays out plastic resin and adhesive - to enabl companies to quickly and easily make physical prototypes of 3 dimensional CAD (Computer Aided Design) models.

These machines have existed for quite some time now - but the high price of the machine has meant that only a few companies have been able to afford to buy and run these machines. However, it now turns out that the price for a 3D printer has come down to the $20-50K range - bringing it within reach for most businesses as well as enabling a whole range of previously impractical business models and products.

Timberland use 3D printers now to create prototype shoes rather than waiting for modellers to to carve it out a week later - instead they can have a plastic resin version overnight.

Dassault - the French software company - on the other hand, are currently planning to build software that would enable kids to design their action figures. The kids would then go onto a website where they can order the figures they've just designed for $25-$30 a pop. At the other end, it's just a simple 3D printer, and a shipping and packaging service - both low cost services. Just think of the other possibilities for custom designed simple tools and products that could be made in a similar fashion!

We're apparently also not far from a 3D printer that can "print" out most of its own composite parts - the plastic ones anyway. The catch is that it can't (currently) print out the semiconductor parts - but it still means that to buy a second printer you buy will only cost you the semiconductors necessary to run it, and the cost of the plastic needed to print the other parts.

Although the article didn't go as far as saying so - we're obviously not getting that far away from a "Star-Trek"-like reality - where you can order something by name and a machine in the corner of the room "prints" it out for you in the time it takes you to cross the room. After all, it's more or less the same idea, just different molecules, right?... Bring on the future!

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