This Yoda doll represents more than just some Star Wars geek’s fandom. It’s how this little plastic Jedi Master was built that ought be of interest. The model was constructed a fraction of a millimeter at a time out of plastic via a process known as three-dimensional (3D) printing—a method that a growing number of entrepreneurs are embracing, and a concept that some say could revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.
The machinery involved is not new, but the way it’s being used is, and it’s altering the way prototypes are built and empowering innovators. In recent months, fans of 3D have watched a steady flow of can-you-top-this reports of breakthroughs, as scientists and even garage tinkerers have gone public with ideas on how to build everything from body parts to medical devices to an entire race car. Even Jay Leno’s doing it—printing his own antique car parts.
If this sounds like just another breathless description of the latest futuristic do-dad, hold off on your skepticism for a bit. A quick look at design-oriented small businesses—from jewelry makers to architectural firms to shops dedicated to fabricating prototypes—show transformations in how businesses are working and thinking because of 3D printing. One upshot: Bad news for middlemen everywhere.
“For a long time now, production has been shifting away from the people doing the designing. They became the liaison—not the builder anymore—and the makers were more removed,” says James Moustafellos, an architect by training and the associate director of Temple University’s Center for Design + Innovation. With 3D printing, “as the technology advances, it’s bringing the building back to the designer, and eliminating the middleman. It’s allowing the person doing the drawing to then become the builder. It completely upends 150 years of roles and methods.”
Understanding 3D printing
Here’s how the 3D printing process works: It starts with drawing an object on a computer or tablet, taking into account three dimensions of the item. From there, the details must be shipped through software that slices the design into thousands of layers and translates the data for the printer. (Some sites, like Thingiverse, let you download digital designs shared by other 3D enthusiasts.)
On the printer side, the process may seem a bit similar to home or office copiers. The difference with 3D printing is what replaces the traditional “ink” in the cartridge. Using an array of materials that include everything from plastics and ceramics to sterling silver, gold and even chocolate, the printer head moves across the glass screen, applying a layer of the material where the data dictates. Then it repeats that cycle over and over, building up the model until the form is complete. Depending on the complexity of the design and the material it is composed of, the printing job can be finished in hours. The time and cost savings can be dramatic, and top-end machines are capable of heretofore impossibly intricate work.
Drew Lanza has been designing and developing perfume-bottle concepts for seven years; he’s been utilizing in-house 3D printing for more than two years. Previously, his five-employee New York firm, Syntax, sent preliminary product designs to an outside shop for prototyping, but he’s brought the work back into the office. “It’s helped me tremendously. Design iterations happen extremely fast—we can do it for them within in a few hours right here,” he says. “By having that aspect in-house, we can test things out by looking at them in reality rather than in digital. It just speeds up the process by days or weeks.”
Syntax’s prototypes still go to a fabricator for complicated, final versions made of materials like glass or lucite, but by solving early design issues with the in-house 3D printing, it has saved him and his clients thousands of dollars on intermediate iterations. Lanza says clients love the ability to hold a prospective design in their hands—and it also helps him in trying to sell an idea or design concept.
How can a novice get started? It can be a relatively inexpensive to experiment. Here’s a quick look at the tools you might need:
“It is a different world, and you have to think differently” when it comes to 3D, says Annamari Mikkola, a Connecticut jewelry designer and art director. She uses a combination of Pixologic’s ZBrush and Rhino, and ships her work to Shapeways, a Netherlands, New York, and Seattle-based startup that uses professional-grade 3D printers to fabricate models within 10 business days.
Designers say the changes are dramatic. Before, “it would take hours of designing and soldering, but the active time was much longer and cumbersome,” Mikkola says. “Now, it’s digital and as a process it’s so fluid. My ‘hourly rate,’ so to speak, is better because I don’t have to do everything.” Other upsides: She no longer has to keep expensive precious metals on hand, nor does she need to bring soldering equipment and various chemicals into her home studio, where she balances work and her two young kids. “It’s much cleaner and easy for me that way,” she says.
Other worthy software: Cubify, Tinkercad, and now Autodesk, the home of AutoCAD design software, has a suite of free apps geared toward makers and 3D printing users, including 123D (for designing), 123D Catch (which can convert photos into a three-dimensional model), 123D Sculpt (involving “digital clay” that you can manipulate on an iPad to make a 3D form).
“We are not going to see run-of-the-mill designs anymore,” says Christian Pramuk, a product manager at Autodesk. “Having several iterations where you finally need to get it right, or the design intent wasn’t properly communicated—that can take weeks or months. Being able to explore and design on your own and iterating on that quickly is important.”
Prices have come down in recent years, as industrial-scale machinery has been adapted to attract hobbyists and designers.
If you’re looking to buy your own, the market (and 3D community) leader is MakerBot. Their latest entrant, the “plug-and-play” Replicator 2, is drawing comparisons to early game-changers like Apple’s first Macintosh computer from the likes of Wired magazine. At $2,199, it may be a steep investment for a newbie, but may prove worthwhile if you want a simplified version of the technology that dedicated tinkerers are using. Among other numerous options: For less than $500, there’s the Solidoodle and a bit higher on the chain, there’s MakerGear’s M Series 3D, for $1,299 if you want to assemble yourself, or $1,499 for an already-built model. The printing materials—the “ink,” for the 3D printer—cost anywhere from $25 and up.
Or you can build your own 3D printer, as Jonathan Hirschman did. The Brooklyn-based owner of Pieco and a founder of the New York Meetup group MakeItNYC assembled his MakerGear Mosaic M2 from a kit over three days. Granted, he had to wade through thousands of components and then deal with a lack of an operating manual, so that’s probably not an option if you’re the type to struggle with putting together a bookcase from IKEA. Still, Hirschman notes that, no matter how you access it, 3D printing has become a real game-changer for people who want to create things. “It’s a democratization of a lot of technologies that were out of reach.”
If that’s too daunting, there are numerous services online that will print your project for you, including Shapeways, Sculpteo, i.Materialise or Moddler. (Price-wise, plan to spend anywhere from a few dollars on a small item to $100 or more on larger projects.) Or you can find any number of specialized printing firms or new-wave community machine shops, like TechShop or San Diego’s MakerPlace, that have been established to rent out access to entrepreneurial tinkerers. It’s a setup that appeals to small business owners with an eye on the bottom line.
“If I want to make a prototype, I can make one. If I want to make something custom, I can make one. I don’t have to send it to some injection-mold facility where, just to get the prototype, might cost thousands of dollars,” says Mikkola, of her jewelry designs. “People want more and more customized stuff. It’s mass customization. People just want something special and something made specifically for them.“
And even if you can’t get the hang of 3D designing, Mikkola says go ahead and hire someone who can do it for you. “Team up with a designer and go for it,” she says, laughing. “The possibilities are limitless.”