3D Printing: Enabling a Trekkian Future for 3D Design & Development

    Posted by John Moseley on Apr 25, 2013 11:02:00 AM

    3d printingIn the Star Trek universe, a machine exists so technologically advanced it may as well be magic. This mythical device creates matter out of thin air, manufacturing starship parts, food, clothes and even oxygen.

    It’s called the replicator. And you could own one soon. 

    There’s a reason today’s commentators compare the very real technology of 3D printing to the fictional replicator. A 3D printer reads a CAD file and prints out the design layer by layer using additive material—almost like creating physical objects out of thin air.

    The comparison is so appropriate that MakerBot, a 3D printer manufacturer, called its latest line of machines Replicators

    Many companies already use 3D printers to prototype models and manufacture replacement parts. Legions of hobbyists are printing objects in garages and shops. Universities are teaching students how to turn 3D designs into 3D printed products.

    In short, 3D printers are taking over. They have mammoth implications for the economy—and for 3D professionals everywhere.

    3D Printing: Where We’re At Now 

    Sorry to disappoint, but we can’t make food out of thin air—yet. But 3D printing is bounding forward. 

    3D printers already produce everything from product prototypes to spare parts using many materials, including plastic and metal. And these machines are dropping in price and growing in capabilities.

    The price of commercially available 3D printers is low considering the technology’s capabilities. And it’s dropping further, encouraging wider adoption. The MakerBot Replicator 2 hit the market last year and costs $2,199. Other companies are already selling machines below the $2,000 mark.

    Analyst firm Gartner predicts that enterprise-grade 3D printers will drop to the same price point by 2016.

    The combination of power and price means 3D printing is already economically viable for many companies. GE adopted 3D printing for its aviation wing’s jet engine manufacturing. Boeing uses the technology to rapid prototype, identify component flaws and keep assembly lines moving.

    With 3D printing, companies respond in real-time to product flaws and customization requests. The ability to print on demand saves R&D time, cuts down on factory molding fees and prevents costly mistakes.

    These advantages are possible because of 3D CAD software. CAD provides the digital design muscle behind the products a 3D printer produces, making 3D design knowledge more important than ever. Those with 3D CAD skills not only power the 3D printing revolution—they also stand to benefit from it in a big way. 

    CAD Professionals and the Benefits of 3D Printing

    Several major CAD software makers now offer solutions tailor-made for 3D printing. Autodesk, one of the major players in 3D design, is even developing software to print living tissue—further pushing the boundaries of what this technology can do.

    It’s becoming increasingly easy for both seasoned professionals and new designers to translate their 3D creations into physical form. Without the expensive molding fees typically charged by factories, anyone can bring their 3D creations to life.

    That translates into real business value for 3D professionals. Architects and designers can use 3D printed models to impress clients. Digital design professionals can bring their visuals out of the screen and into the real world. By using 3D printing to prototype products, engineering and product design outfits stand to win big. 

    In all of these disciplines, increased productivity and streamlined design cycles are crucial to staying competitive. 3D printing gives companies productivity and efficiency advantages found nowhere else.

    No one says it better, though, than users of 3D printers. 3Dconnexion user and 3D printing hobbyist Eric Schimelpfenig (@SketchThis) uses 3D printers regularly—and he’s wild about the technology. 

    “It’s absolutely amazing. It’ll change the way things are shipped, manufactured and customized,” he says. “It’s still a nerd hobby right now. My mother isn’t going to get one and print things out for her house, but I don’t think we’re far off from that.”

    Are you using 3D printing in your design process? How? We’d love to hear if and how you’re using the technology in the comments!

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    3D design productivity guide

    Image courtesy of Creative Tools via Flickr. 

    Tags: Engineering, Design, Architecture