Early Adopters: Is 3D Printing Right for Your Business?

by Jeff Yoders
- Sep 3 2013 - 3 min read
Micke Tong

As prices for 3D printers plummet, many are predicting we’ll soon be printing parts, tools, and everyday items in our homes.

There are 3D printers available for around $1,000. Office Depot has started stocking 3D Systems Cube and CubeX printers for the relatively inexpensive prices of $1,299 and $2,499. A successful Kickstarter campaign promises to bring The Buccaneer—a “3D printer everyone can use”—into homes in the next few years.

So, will 3D printing change the way you run your business? Will you be able to quickly and easily print prototype designs in the comfort of your own office with little to no cost fairly soon? Not so fast, pirate.

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass recently said that while he was excited by the way that individuals were adopting 3D printing technology and the way that industry was pushing the state of the art, he cautioned that the technology still has a long way to grow. “The weakness right now in 3D printing, particularly for home 3D printing is, number one, the materials,” Bass said.

The 3D printers that are aimed at small architecture studios and firms that want to print their own design iterations are still complex pieces of machinery that require expensive materials. To “print” a model in 3D, a CAD file is imported into your 3D printer’s included translation software and “sliced” into a stereolithography (.STL) file that breaks the model down into thin cross sections and feeds them into the 3D printer. The printer creates the model one layer at a time by spreading a layer of the gypsum-based powder and inkjet printing binder into the cross sections of the model. The process is repeated until every layer is printed. This is the cheapest process, and the resin and gypsum materials still cost about $3 per cubic inch. If your firm can afford to invest in the materials, 3D printing of models and iterations might be worth your while.

More expensive 3D printing technologies employ either selective laser sintering, which uses heat to fuse metal or plastic elements; or digital light projection, wherein a liquid polymer is exposed to light from a DLP projector under safelight conditions to harden it into a plastic.

3D Systems is the largest 3D printer manufacturer in the world today. Media Manager Alyssa Reichental said that their printers already print in over 100 different materials across seven different 3D printing technologies.

“While materials continue to evolve and we’re able to print more types of things, our printers also continue to improve in speed and print quality,” Reichental says. She also noted that while you can “slice” any CAD or BIM file into an STL, that does not mean that the geometry will be optimized for 3D printing. Users will want to watch out for things like non-watertight meshes, overhangs between 60 and 90 degrees that require support, and dimensions for the printer they plan to use. 3D Systems’ goal in this unprecedented 3D printing growth period is to help mainstream users and small businesses use 3D printing by making the design tools and 3D printers as easy to use as smartphones and other consumer electronics.

So, while 3D printing might require an investment in the printer, recurring investments in the materials, and a careful eye in translating CAD files, it is a constantly evolving technology, and your firm could see significant benefits to getting into it early. The ability to detail mechanical, engineering, and plumbing designs; design iterations; and individual parts to clients could net significant work.

Software packages from a wide variety of manufacturers—including Autodesk (Inventor, AutoCAD, Revit, Fusion 360, and 123D), Solidworks, and Bentley Microstation—can all be easily converted into STL files. Autodesk has made a free STL exporter for its Revit BIM platform available.

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