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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing Solid Physical Objects

What exactly are the limits of commercial printing? What constitutes printing and what does not? About a year ago, I wrote a PIE Blog posting about a clock based on the coordinated release of jets of water from a hose. As the volume of water fell with precise timing, it created an image of the time of day in mid air.

Since this may be hard to envision, here’s a link to a video:

I would consider this a custom printing device, since it used digital information to create an image, even if that image was ephemeral. I would also go beyond this and say that the new generation of 3-dimensional printers fits the definition of custom printing as well. I’ve recently started to study this arena of printing because I believe it stands poised to transform commerce.

In an online article from The National entitled “How the Future Will Be Printed,” the author references a quote by Michael Dosier of the American University of Sharjah, saying that 3D printers “[are] set to revolutionise manufacturing, retail, distribution and employment.”

The Economist echoes this prediction, noting that “three dimensional printing…may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”

How Does It Work?

Currently the American University of Sharjah has three 3D custom printing devices. One of these uses powder, and two use plastics. The print heads deposit glue in repeated passes, horizontal layer upon layer, based on digital information, with the powder or plastic also added layer after layer. The base support within the machine descends as the layers are printed, and when the desired shape has been formed, the object is dug out of the surrounding residue of powder. Then the unused powder can be collected and reused.

The solid, three-dimensional object that results has a high resolution (level of detail, just like resolution in inkjet commercial printing).

It is also more than you might expect. In the United States at Cornell University, 3D printers have produced edible food, according to The National. Other groups have created furniture and car parts. In still another case, an 83-year old woman with an infected lower jaw received a 3D printed replacement jaw. Other groups have created a replica of King Tutankhamun’s mummy by performing a CT scan and then using the digital information to drive a 3D printer.

Taken to its extreme, notes The National, the process has the potential for printing replacements for human organs (after all, if they can grow human ears on mice, this doesn’t seem that far fetched).

Transforming the Manufacturing Process

Custom printing physical objects, even if they are just the component parts that are assembled into finished products, contrasts with the prior manufacturing model, which involves either creating objects within molds (pouring lead or plastic into molds, for instance) or by removing surrounding material (cutting something out of wood or milling metal, for example). The precision of such a process would also exceed that of the prior manufacturing model. It might also allow for the use of stronger, but lighter, materials for the 3D printing of objects.

What this process (referred to as “additive manufacturing” in the R&D Magazine article “The Fine Print: How Additive Manufacturing and Bespoke Products Are Changing the Way We Make Things”) implies, though, is multifaceted:

  1. As 3D printers proliferate, this will affect the current, vast supply chains that move products around the world as they are produced, assembled, and distributed. This could dramatically alter employment in factory settings. Instead of large manufacturing plants, we might have 3D custom printing devices at home or at much smaller commercial printing and assembly plants.
  2. Digital information can be tailored to individuals. Just as a marketing brochure print job produced on an HP Indigo can be mass customized so each recipient can receive a personalized mailing, each 3D object can be tailored to the recipient’s individual needs.
  3. The process will replace the enormous expense of manufacturing the tooling machinery that creates objects with the lower expense of building 3D printers.
  4. The process will probably also speed up manufacturing processes in general as well as their distribution supply chains.

GE is currently applying this new technology to it various businesses, from healthcare to energy, using a multitude of materials, from polymers to metals to ceramics.

The future of custom printing goes far beyond ink on paper.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing Solid Physical Objects”

  1. printing says:

    I like your blog. Thanks for sharing about the 3D custom printing devices. It is very helpful.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your support. I’m glad you like the blog.

      The 3D printing devices are quite amazing, with far-reaching implications for manufacturing, workflow, distribution, etc. It’s a new world.


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