Gilster: 3-D printing works its way into manufacturing chain

3-D printing is increasingly in the news, and it deserves the attention. With the right setup, manufacturers can send software instructions to their printers, which draw from available raw materials to create whatever part is needed. The world’s largest 3-D printer manufacturer is 3D Systems, an executive from which recently noted that the speed of 3-D printing has, over the course of the last 10 years, been doubling every 24 months. 3-D printing is now faster than traditional injection molding in certain factory situations.

Does that idea of doubling every 24 months ring a bell? It was Intel’s Gordon Moore who suggested, way back in 1965, that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double every year, a law that grew to incorporate an equivalent drop in price that has more or less tracked what has happened in the digital world ever since. So what 3D Systems is telling us is that 3-D printing is on a fast and unstoppable upsurge in growth.

Maybe so. Right now, large machines using proprietary metals, plastics and cartridges are used for rapid prototyping, though the printers are still slow and limited in their uses in mass production. But basic 3-D printing is showing up on the Internet, where it’s possible to order custom-made products such as Nokia’s mobile phone cases, printed just as you specify.

TurboRoo’s story

How does it work? A computer file models the product to be produced and the instructions are sent to the 3-D printer, which – in the case of a consumer product called MakerBot – then builds the product up with repeated passes of its equipment using a heated plastic filament on a spool.

The interest in 3-D printing at the consumer level is being perpetuated by an active population of hobbyists and experimenters who are tuning up the technique for everything from printing gears for machines to working musical instruments. The MakerBot is a full-featured 3-D printer for the home that, despite being challenging to learn and weighed down by clumsy software and a high price ($2,000) is emerging as the state of the art for creative tinkerers.

All this reminds me of the early days of ham radio or, for that matter, the 1970s, when personal computers came in the form of kits such as the MITS Altair 8800, and computer clubs sprang up where people could show what they got their tiny machine to do. These days news stories are having a galvanizing effect on would-be home printers. Consider TurboRoo, a disabled dog born without front legs, who was rescued and given a wheeled cart printed by 3-D methods in Indianapolis. TurboRoo, it is said, is adapting nicely to the cart and getting around just fine.

Constant upgrades

Why 3-D printing is the story here is that as the little dog grows, a customized cart like this is going to need constant upgrades. How to do that on a one-off basis without paying a local manufacturer repeatedly to make the new parts? A MakerBot printer like the one used for TurboRoo can grow with the dog and produce just what the doctor ordered at a minimal cost. At the other end of the size scale, architects in the Netherlands are using a 20-foot-tall 3-D printer called KamerMaker to build modular rooms that snap together to create an entire house.

So maybe the analogy with Moore’s Law is more than just a curiosity. What lies ahead is the inevitable process of figuring out how consumers can go from printing trinkets and keychain fobs to more complex objects such as the saxophone a 3-D enthusiast named Olaf Diegel recently made. From a cultural perspective, 3-D printing is working its way into the manufacturing chain. A company called Local Motors will attempt to print an actual car this fall in Chicago. PCs surprised us by their power to change our lives. Is 3-D printing about to do the same?

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at