The Prototype Printer

Feb 17 2011

Prototyping the future

This week’s Economist has a jaw dropping article on a 3D good quality printer technology which it claims will be the ‘manufacturing technology that will change the world’, comparing it with the 18th century industrial revolution.  Based on the article it will certainly transform the economics of manufacturing potentially making it almost as cheap to create a single customised product as it is to produce thousands.

The technology is actually more straightforward than I had realised, taking a computer blueprint in three dimensions, adjusting shape and colour to individual requirements and then pressing ‘print’!  The object is built up gradually by depositing material from a nozzle or selectively solidifying layers of plastic or metal dust using small droplets of glue or a very tightly focused beam.  Finished products are built up layer by layer over time, so the technology has also been called ‘additive manufacturing’.

Building from small beginnings

The technology does not need a factory, but can be used in your home or office, although the size of the machine constrains the size of object that can be built.  Although the process only currently works with certain materials and to a precision of around one tenth of a millimetre, it will quickly improve..  A basic 3D printer today costs less than an equivalent laser printer in 1985, and will become much cheaper. Here are some of the best 3d printers under 500.

The democratisation of manufacturing could have revolutionary implications for the way some products are made and especially how they are distributed.  Once you have a product’s blueprint and a printer, then you can make one yourself!

One of the many implications is on the innovation process itself.  The ability to produce quick and cheap prototypes will have huge benefits for the speed and quality of new product development, creating a much more level playing field between big and small businesses.

I hope to have one in my office soon.

REFERENCE

‘Print me a Stradivarius’ @ Economist.com, February 12, 2011

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