3D printing heads toward mainstream

Falling cost of printers and the business case for using 3D imaging to create product prototypes more efficiently will help drive the technology toward mainstream adoption. But, its use must first be simplified.
Written by Mahesh Sharma, Correspondent

It paves the way for prototypes to be designed more efficiently and the cost of adoption is falling, but for 3D printing to reach mainstream adoption, its use must first be simplified for the non-technically savvy.

Hong Kong native Elton Leung was first bitten by the DIY bug when he observed his father assemble, deconstruct, and reassemble the original Apple II computer. Today, he believes 3D printers, which deposit layers of material to manufacture an object from ground-up, have revived the notion people can build and customize their products.

Leung said: "In my father's generation, everyone knew how to make something or how to fix something. That trend has come back."

The cost of 3D printers has dropped significantly over the past decade, from tens of thousands of dollars to a fraction of that amount, putting the technology in the grasp of the mainstream consumer. This market is worth about US$1.7 billion and predicted to grow to US$3.7 billion by 2015, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates.

The easier accessibility of 3D printers has helped seed product manufacturing businesses previously not possible.

Leung was fascinated by his first encounter with the PalmPilot, one of the earliest mobile devices controlled by a user's touch, where he found the stylus intuitive. However, enthusiasm turned into frustration as the stylus was slashed to a fraction of its former length in order to be compatible with smaller handsets.

About three years ago, Leung resolved to create an extendable stylus which replicated the experience of holding a pen. He targeted the more popular handheld consumer game device, the Nintendo DS, and its successor, the 3DS.

The traditional production process had significant hurdles, requiring an initial US$1,000 prototype used to develop a small mould which cost at least US$10,000 and used to manufacture 100,000 units.

The scale and the margin of error were also too big.

"It's very expensive, especially when you don't know if the market is going to accept it, or is going to like your product or not," Leung said. Instead, he paid a local company US$120 to fabricate three prototypes from over 14 different designs created in Autodesk's Inventor software.The X-Stylus series, thus, was born.

More importantly, this intellectual property--which he later patented--was the foundation of his Green Bulb design business, which would eventually generate tens of thousands of dollars. Last September, Leung pre-sold US$8,710 worth of X-Stylus Crayons for the 3DS via crowdfunding site, IndieGoGo. Earlier this year, he pre-sold US$51,025 worth of products to 527 people for a follow-up model, the Xstylus Touch for the iPad. Overall, he has sold thousands of "stylii" priced between US$20 and US$39 each.

All of it would have been almost impossible without 3D printers, he said. This was the theme of the HK Mini Makerfaire in August, which demonstrated products such as a DIY Segway and 3D-screen attachment for the iPad.

Now Leung plans to develop a new baby bottle, which could cater to his first-born, or a mobile phone case using 3D printers. "It'll definitely speed up the process. We no longer have to hire--or depend on--other people," he said. "If I want to quickly change a design, I can do it right away. Even in a matter of days."

This technology could soon be in the hands of consumers.

Bringing 3D printing mainstream
At a 3,000 square feet factory in Kwai Hing--home of Hong Kong's production industry in the 90s before it drifted north to China--American expat Jon Buford has begun manufacturing and distributing what is touted as the world's cheapest 3D printer, the Makibox.

Buford hopes the US$200 device can help push this technology to the masses.

Compared to other models sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars, he has adopted the IKEA philosophy to developing a model for a fraction of the price--by letting the buyer assemble the final product. This step challenges a prospective printer to have the desire--and more importantly, the patience--to navigate the challenges ahead.

While anyone can quickly start playing with a tablet or smartphone, they would be stumped by the complicated workflow for the 3D printer, said Buford, who described the process:

- Download a 3D file; or create one yourself via PC design software tools, or a smartphone app.

- "Digest" or convert the file into a format which can be used by the 3D printer.

- Use another program to operate the 3D printer.

This defines the fundamental struggle of the Makibox and, in many ways, the mainstream movement. "Do you remember how PCs were back in the 80s where there were hoops you had to jump through to make it work?" Buford recalled. "That's basically where the technology is at right now."

"We are at that stage where 3D printers can be used by people with some aptitude, but for the not-very-technically-savvy, it will take a little bit more--it's not just a plug-and-play app right now," Buford said. "We need to polish the software and hardware over another generation so it can plug-in and work."

"It's not that far away," he added. The first 10 Makiboxes are on their way to beta customers and once he is confident they will be efficiently distributed, Buford plans to ramp up production to satisfy the 800-unit order backlog which includes Leung.

Mass consumption will help create a 3D ecosystem for users to seamlessly create, access, and fabricate objects--just like what the iPhone and iTunes did for music and apps. This will then drive innovation.

Autodesk's 123DCatch app enables 3D models to be created from photos.

Apps to enable 3D reality
Smartphone apps developed by design software vendor, Autodesk, which include the 123D Catch app, have been downloaded almost 100 million times. Other 3D scanner apps include MakerBot by Trimensional and iScan3D by Digiteyezer. 

123DCatch features the 3D model of the nephew of Autodesk's personal design and fabrication product manager, Christian Pramuk, who used the iPhone app to photograph his nephew's head from a 360 degree perspective. The app then compresses the images into a 3D model on Autodesk's remote cloud servers--ready to be exported and edited to Web-based application, 123DSculpt.

Pramuk virtually cut a hole in his nephew's head and then ordered a model in a translucent material from one of the print partners. When he dropped an LED light in the cavity, his nephew became a lamp.

Autodesk renders 11,000 of these projects each week, according to the company's consumer products director of business development and partnerships, Mary Hope McQuisition. Nearly 10,000 projects are shared in the public gallery.

The apps also address the 3D-printer chicken-and-egg dilemma: printers are only as valuable as the number of computer models which can be fabricated into objects.

McQuiston said: "We certainly think the software has been the missing piece. It's absolutely critical to enable non-technical folks to participate."

Mahesh Sharma is a freelance IT writer based in Australia.

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