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Archive for the ‘3D Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: 3D Printed Rockets

Monday, October 21st, 2019

A dear friend and commercial printing colleague recently shared with me some information on a firm that prints rockets. Not plastic, model rockets for science fairs but huge, metal rockets that take satellites into space. They use 3D printing technology (building up layer upon layer of metal rather than plastic), and they can do this faster and less expensively than with more traditional technology. Wow.

First of all, an overview: 3D custom printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for some time now. You can even go to a computer store and buy a 3D printer for relatively little money.

The process is analagous to your inkjet printer, which sprays drops of ink onto a flat substrate. In contrast, a 3D printer you might buy at MicroCenter “oozes” liquefied plastic from a nozzle onto a matrix, building up layer upon layer of plastic into a 3D product: let’s say a plastic chess piece. Digital data drives the process.

In contrast, you have the more traditional subtractive manufacturing technology that grinds away at a block of material (metal, plastic). Maybe you would use subtractive manufacuring to “machine” or grind down metal pieces you would then assemble into an electric motor.

Think of this as the difference between modeling a statue out of clay (additive manufacturing) and carving a statue out of wood (subtractive manufacturing).

I’ve read about people making designer shoes with a 3D printer, along with jewelry and even small pistols. Beyond that, I’ve even read about biochemists working toward printing body parts or even types of food (like hamburgers).

But Rockets?

Here’s the gist of the matter. Relativity Space (backed by Mark Cuban, co-host of Shark Tank) has successfully printed space rockets that will put automobile-sized satellites in a low orbit (close to Earth) in a “constellation” (grouping) that can communicate with each other (and can also communicate more quickly with Earth because they are closer to Earth than other satellites).

Relativity also plans to eventually make rockets in this manner (3D printing) on the surface of Mars using local (“in situ”) materials (Martian rockets 3D printed on Mars using Martian materials).

And Relativity already has clients, such as mu Space in Thailand. mu Space makes satellites, but it has also designed a spacesuit. And Relativity’s 3D custom printing processes will come in handy here as well.

To go back to the business pitch for Relativity’s 3D process, Relativity can produce the rockets considerably faster (six months vs. the usual three to four years) and considerably cheaper (two to three times cheaper) than with traditional technology. And because they can do this more quickly and cheaply, schedules for getting back into space can be shorter. And changes in rocket design can be achieved more easily (on the fly, if you will).

After all, when you’re building a component of a rocket layer upon layer with metal using digital design information to drive the process, you don’t need expensive machinery specifically designed to grind down the parts. (You don’t even need machinery for injection molding–another additive manufacturing process in which you pour liquefied metal into a mold.)

You have flexibility.

But Is It Printing?

So how does all of this relate to commercial printing? And what are the overall business implications of digital (let’s call it) 3D imaging?

First of all, when you print ink on paper, you are presenting the reader with a stimulus. The reader sees the words and photos, and perhaps the qualities of the paper, and this evokes an image in the mind and emotions of the reader. For functional printing and informational printing, the printed product essentially does the same thing.

For 3D printing, additive manufacturing transports the printed product, which had initially been a vision in the mind of the manufacturer, into three dimensional reality. In addition, for functional products like Relativity’s space rockets, the 3D printed item has a utilitarian value (just as a printed computer keyboard layout has utilitarian value).

The next benefit of 3D manufacturing (over subtractive manufacturing) is that you don’t have to spend huge amounts of money to change the manufacturing tools every time you change the design. Just as you can print a flexible packaging prototype via digital inkjet (and then change the design in response to user feedback), if Relativity doesn’t like a prototype rocket made with 3D custom printing, they can remake the digital design files. Then they can 3D print a new prototype without needing to remake the injection molding equipment or the tooling or grinding machines.

Whether it’s a brochure or a rocket, driving the production process with digital data reduces costs and speeds up production.

And if you’re making rockets, you’re applying your efficient and economical manufacuring techniques to an especially lucrative endeavor.

For Further Reading

You may want to check out the following articles about Relativity Space and the Terran rockets, the world’s first entirely 3D produced rockets. These articles discuss Relativity’s ability to produce rockets from “materials to flight-ready” in 60 days with a launch time of between two and four years:

“A 3D-Printed Rocket Will Launch a Thai Satellite Into Space,”, 04/23/19, Elizabeth Howell

“Relativity Space to Launch Satellite ‘Tugs’ on Printed Rocket,”, Dorris Elin Urrutia

“Dreaming of Mars, the Start-Up Relativity Space Gets Its First Launch Site on Earth,”, Jonathan Shieber, 01/17/19

Custom Printing: A Concise 3D Printing Primer

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I just read an article online that captures in three pages the gist of the new 3D commercial printing wave. Written by Tyler Lacoma, this article, entitled “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know,” presented on Yahoo News, delivers just what its title promises. If you’re interested in the subject, it’s worth your time. It will get you started on your research.

What the Article Includes

Lacoma’s article first defines and explains 3D commercial printing, then breaks down the process into its component parts, then lists and defines five different approaches to 3D printing, and then ends the article with a description of some of the uses for this technology.

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing has also been termed “additive manufacturing.” This term distinguishes the process from what I grew up with, “subtractive manufacturing.” The latter involves removing metal, for instance, from a block of the raw substance. In the case of producing metal pieces for assembly into an engine, subtractive manufacturing would involve milling or grinding: that is, removing everything that is not relevant to the engine component. Once all the components have been ground, carved, or milled, they can then be assembled.

In contrast, Lacoma’s article defines additive or 3D manufacturing as creating a component part by adding material until the component part is complete. “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know” focuses on (essentially) a process not unlike inkjet printing for the creation, layer by layer, of the individual components of a machine (or any other project).

Before I explain this more fully, I do want to add my belief that injection molding would also be considered additive manufacturing, since you add material into a premade mold, then remove the mold to access the part you have created.

I’d also like to go further and note that as with subtractive manufacturing, you can in fact produce a complete item if it comprises a single part. For instance, using 3D custom printing, you can print a shoe buckle, a ring, or any other single component item. Or you can manufacture the myriad parts of a complex product.

What makes 3D printing so compelling is that it is, in most cases, digital. If, for example, you are making an object using injection molding (also an additive manufacturing process), you have to first make the mold. This costs money and takes time. In contrast, the 3D printers that are now sold in computer stores create products layer by layer from digital files. These files require no molds. Hence, you can alter the design at will. You can change every product you print. All you need is the digital data.

You might envision this more effectively through an offset commercial printing (and finishing) analogy. If you need to die cut a product, you would normally create a metal cutting die. This would cost money and take time. It also would stamp out the same design, product after product. But if you use a programmable laser (run on digital data) to selectively burn away the scrap in a die cut product, you will have no need for the metal die cutting rule (or the time and cost it involves). And you can also change the die cutting pattern for every printed product.

To get back to Lacoma’s article, here are the three components of digital additive manufacturing:

  1. The digital file. This file breaks down the 3D modeled image into very precise layers and drives the printer.
  2. The printer itself. Just as an inkjet printer has print heads that go back and forth depositing ink as the paper is fed through the machine, a 3D printer has print heads that produce the 3D product layer by layer as the printed 3D product is moved away from the print heads. And instead of using ink to make marks on paper, the 3D printer uses various substances that can be extruded through the print head nozzles in a measured fashion driven by the digital data files. Basically the 3D printer includes a box in which to produce the 3D item and the custom printing heads. In some kinds of 3D printing, the print head nozzles are replaced with (or accompanied by) lasers that can set or cure the printing material as it is produced in layers. Many of these 3D printers are complex, involving precise temperature controls. Some only print within a vacuum.
  3. The printing material. This may include plastic, nylon, resins, synthetic sandstone, ceramic materials, or even metals (steel, silver, gold). I have read other articles describing the printing of body parts and organs (using biological materials) and even food (using food products). Lacoma’s article also notes that hybrid raw materials can be used (plastics plus other substances, for instance) to include the qualities of all the component materials.

Technologies for 3D Printing

These are the methods for digitally printing 3D objects that Lacoma describes in “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know”:

  1. Fusion Deposition Modeling (FDM): Nozzles melt and then extrude plastic filaments (that look like spools of plastic wire) layer by layer to create the 3D object. The molten filaments cool and solidify into the final printed object. This is akin to the 3D printers I have seen in computer stores.
  2. Stereolithography (SLA): A laser is fired at a liquid resin to instantly harden the material. The object being created is removed from the liquid layer by layer. This can produce more detailed objects than Fusion Deposition Modeling. (In addition, it is not a new process. It was invented in the 1980s.)
  3. Jetting Processes: Lacoma’s article notes the similarity of this process to Stereolithography. However, he also notes that instead of pulling the created object out of a vat of liquid raw material, the jetting process sprays liquid reactive polymer onto a base and then hardens it instantly with UV light (in a method analogous to inkjet printing with UV inks and then curing them instantly with UV light). This 3D printing process proceeds layer by layer. (Other versions of this process use powders and glue to build up the layers.) This technology can produce detailed results, so it is often used for industrial products.
  4. Selective Laser Sintering: This process uses polymides and thermoplastic elastomers, which are powders (not the plastic filaments used in the 3D printing methods noted above). A laser fuses these powders into layer upon layer of the 3D product being created. These products are very durable. This technology is good for both individual production of prototypes and mass production of industrial parts.
  5. Metal Printing: In this method, the 3D object is built on a platform, which is lowered as the object is built up layer by layer. Powerful lasers (selective laser melting) or electron beams (electron beam melting) melt the powdered metal with considerable precision within very controlled printing environments. (Lacoma compares this process to welding.)

What Products Can Be Made?

Lacoma’s article notes a handful of popular products that lend themselves to 3D manufacturing. Here is a selection:

  1. Shoes: Manufacturers include Feetz and 3D Shoes. What makes these products interesting is that the digital nature of the process allows for customization of each pair of shoes.
  2. Houses: Lacoma’s article references 3D printed houses that can be produced and painted within 24 hours.
  3. Healthcare products: These include everything from mass produced items like 3D printed cups to custom products like prostheses, which can be tailored to an individual’s unique bodily requirements. Skin grafts made from biological material are another product Lacoma’s article includes.
  4. Custom orders: Essentially this would be analogous to ordering a print book online (a web-to-print product produced only after you have ordered it). Now web-to-print products can include 3D printed items.
  5. Theatrical set design: 3D manufacturing is ideal for creating component props for a dramatic presentation. You can make anything from science fiction props to historical props.

Why This Matters

“What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know” explains why this is a game changer. Because you don’t need to buy expensive milling and grinding machinery or even make expensive injection molds, 3D digital printing is an inexpensive way to make things. You can produce prototypes, and then you can change them before committing to mass production. This is also often the quickest option, allowing a manufacturer to bring a product to market much faster than in the past.

Why This Matters to Print and Web Designers

The short answer is that this is the future, and it also involves the principles of design in the same way that sculpture involves the principles of design. In addition, for many applications, 3D commercial printing will push the creation of objects downstream, from centralized shops with expensive machinery to (perhaps even) the individual end-users (or at least to local shops).

This 3D manufacturing process can operate in much the same way as a commercial printing job can be sent over the Internet from a designer on the East Coast to a local print shop on the West Coast, then printed, then delivered locally—without using an expensive trans-continental delivery service.

Custom Printing: Transformative Technology of 3D and 4D Printing

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

I hadn’t done much research into 3D custom printing recently, so I thought I’d check out the current state of the technology. I was pleased to find that it is very much alive and thriving. I found three articles I’d like to share with you.

First of All, What Is 3D Printing?

An inkjet printer’s printheads move from side to side as the paper feeds through the machine producing a two dimensional copy of whatever is in your computer file. In much the same way a 3D printer has printheads that move not only from side to side but also up and down. Such printers use plastic resins (instead of ink) to build up layer upon layer of material to create three-dimensional products.

This approach, also known as additive manufacturing, is a step beyond traditional manufacturing, which involves either grinding down some material into a usable item (or part of an item) or injection molding an item, which involves making a hollow form into which plastic, molten metal, or some other substance is injected. When the mold form is removed, you have your item (or component part of an item).

Injection molding requires making molds, which is slow and expensive. In contrast, if you have a 3D printer and a computer file, you can easily and cheaply make one item (or parts for an item that you would then assemble).

The Articles on 3D Printing

I would like to preface this by saying that many of the articles I had been reading during my prior study of 3D custom printing had involved using additive manufacturing to print hamburger-like meat (which I thought was interesting, albeit very expensive) and handguns (which concerned me). However, I had also been pleased to read about attempts to 3D print replacement body parts (out of biological matter).

Interestingly enough, over the past few years I have also noticed computer vendors such as Micro Center selling these 3D printers for a reasonable price.

A Prosthesis for a Tortoise

The first article I read was entitled “Injured Tortoise Gets a Second Chance at Life Through 3D Printing.” It was written by Luke Dormehl and uploaded to on 8/22/16. The article references a veterinarian, Nicola Di Girolamo, who treated a tortoise that had lost a leg to a rodent attack (one leg had been so badly damaged by the rodent that it had required amputation).

The vet contracted with Roma Stampa, a 3D custom printing vendor, to produce a prosthesis for a tortoise. It was essentially a two-wheeled cart that could be attached to the tortoise’s shell using two neodymium magnets. What makes this different from other two-wheeled carts for animals is that it was produced precisely to the dimensions needed by the tortoise. In addition, because of the magnet attachments, the cart could be removed during the long annual hibernation period (up to six months) of the tortoise so it didn’t confine her.

So, you may ask, what makes this custom printing?

When you inkjet print a brochure, you are using a computer to digitally create a presentation of information and concepts. You are using printing ink and a horizontal and vertical matrix to create the reader’s internal “experience” and hopefully to empower the reader to think and act.

So when Roma Stampa produced the cart for the tortoise, it used an inkjettable material more substantial than commercial printing ink, a digital computer file, a 3D printer, and a three-axis matrix (length, width, and height) to create an object that empowered the tortoise to move and walk.

Creating 750 Human Hand Prostheses

The next article, “Volunteers Assemble 750 3D Printed Prosthetic Hands,” describes a 3D print run of all the component parts needed to assemble 750 human hands (22,000 pieces in all). The article was written by Beth Stackpole and published on on 8/25/16.

According to Stackpole’s article, “Autodesk has teamed up with the Enable Community Foundation (ECF) and Voodoo Manufacturing to conduct what they say is the world’s first global hand drive for 3D printed hands.” The goal of the initiative was “to serve children and underserved populations around the globe.”

The reason this is noteworthy is the cost and the turn-around time. It usually costs tens of thousands of dollars and weeks or months to make traditional prosthetic hands. In contrast, each of the hands made in this initiative cost only $50.00. All parts were produced in a month’s time by Voodoo Manufacturing and then assembled by 10,000 Autodesk employees around the world.

By using a 3D printing process (approximately 160 small Makerbot Replicator2 3D printers), Autodesk, ECF, and Voodoo Manufacturing have empowered 750 people around the world by giving them functioning hands. And like a digital inkjet press, this 3D printer was cost-effective and faster than traditional, non-digital options.

The Fourth Dimension of 3D Printing

If 3D printing involves length, width, and height, then 4D custom printing includes time (i.e., movement or change). In the realm of the fine arts, sculptor Alexander Calder invented “mobiles,” which included the usual three dimensions but also moved (whether they hung from the ceiling or stood on the floor). This distinguished them from other sculptures.

The third article I read addressed the theme of movement within 3D printed products. It was entitled, “Forget 3D Printing – Here’s 4D Printing.” The article was written by Lucas Mearian and published on 8/24/16 on (DigitalArts from IDG).

To quote from the article, “Researchers have demonstrated the ability to 3D print objects that can then change shape, even folding and unfolding, when heated through an electrical current or with ambient air temperature.”

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California printed 3D items using “smart ink” composed of soybean oil, polymers, and carbon nanofibres. According to the article, the scientists “programed” these “into a temporary shape at an engineered temperature that was determined by the chemical composition.”

If you find the article online, you can watch a video of two small boxes made from this material. When heated, one opens and one closes. (That is, the material has “memory.” These “shape memory polymers” (SMPs) change, or return to an original shape depending on the temperature.

The article, “Forget 3D Printing – Here’s 4D Printing,” quotes Jennifer Rodriguez, a post-doctoral researcher in LLNL’s Materials Engineering Division and the paper’s lead author, as saying “You take the part out of the oven before it’s done and set the permanent structure of the part by folding or twisting after an initial gelling of the polymer.”

The LLNL scientists foresee using this 3D printing technique in aerospace and medicine. For instance, a collapsed stent can be made to open up when heated, or a child’s splint can be made to change shape and lengthen as the child’s body grows.

The Take-Away

It makes sense for us to open our minds to new technologies, whether they involve ink digitally printed on paper from a computer file or polymer digitally printed in three dimensions. Like ink on paper, three-dimensional items produced digitally can empower people and transform lives.

Custom Printing: Making Car Parts with a 3-D Printer

Monday, February 6th, 2017

A close friend of mine is a car aficionado. He recently brought to my attention an article in the March issue of Motor Trend magazine that describes advances in 3-D printed car parts. I’ll have to admit that I was skeptical, as I was in the 1970s when I took a ride on my step-brother’s plastic motorcycle. But I was wrong then (it was a good bike), and in doing some reading now on 3-D printed car parts, I’ve become intrigued by the benefits.

The New Technology

The article my friend sent me was a column by Frank Markus entitled “3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars” (Motor Trend, March 2017).

The article addresses the work of Kevin Czinger, who researched the environmental impact of gas and hybrid automobiles due to his concern for the planet. He found that manufacturing the vehicles and the fuel accounted for more than 75 percent of the vehicle’s environmental impact (according to Argonne National Lab’s life cycle GREET model data). So he began to look for alternatives to metal stamping and welding car parts.

Czinger therefore founded Divergent 3D in Gardena, California, where he uses “off-the-shelf carbon-fiber tubing and sheet goods,” along with 3-D custom printing, to create an auto chassis that is cheaper to manufacture and significantly lighter in weight than a traditionally produced product. It will “accommodate any type of body, powertrain, and feature content” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

According to the article, Czinger’s process for a “prototype Blade uses 69 nodes, each of which are 3-D printed by laser sintering powdered aluminum to connect an intricate web of carbon-fiber tubes and honeycomb-aluminum or carbon-fiber sheer paneling—all off-the-shelf commodity parts” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

(As a point of interest, laser sintering is one of a number of processes, including direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering, and electron beam additive manufacturing, that use a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse powdered metal or wire into a usable—and stable—3-D form, building up the substance layer by layer from a 3-D computer aided design model.)

Frank Markus’ article then notes the bottom line: a “drastic drop in manufacturing cost and complexity.” And, by inference, if there’s a drop in the complexity of manufacturing, there will be a lessened effect on the environment.

The Effects of the New Technology

  1. As I read the article, I am reminded of the LEGO plastic building toy I had in the ‘60s that let children build practically anything with a limited number of interlocking plastic parts. What Czinger seems to be doing is identifying those parts that need to be unique, producing these via 3-D additive manufacturing, and then using these custom-built car parts along with standard (albeit simpler and lighter than usual) parts to complete the car chassis building process. Simpler equals cheaper and less damaging to the environment.
  2. If the chassis of the car is strong but much lighter than usual, it seems that fuel efficiency will increase. For performance cars (like those in Motor Trend magazine), this will equate to faster speeds. However, it will also equate to a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency. Less fuel, as Czinger found in his initial research, will combine with less complex manufacturing to reduce the impact of a vehicle on the environment.
  3. Czinger’s Divergent 3D process apparently sidesteps the need for painting car parts. Markus’ article notes that the “unstressed composite body panels get molded in color or wrapped” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”). Eliminating a painting step in car production will dramatically reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), further lessening the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
  4. From the point of view of manufacturing in general (as opposed to the auto industry in particular), combining digitally produced unique parts with off-the-shelf commodity parts will streamline both research and development and the final production of vehicles. More specifically, a prototype can be made in-house quickly, and then changed any number of times in response to testing. In contrast, without 3-D manufacturing, the parts for the prototype would need to be sent out for injection molding, which would be a subcontracted process taking a lot of time and money. In short, additive manufacturing would make vehicle design more “nimble” and therefore quicker, cheaper, and more easily adjusted in response to testing.
  5. Applying 3-D custom printing technology to car production would simplify the manufacturing process, minimize inventory, and make the “assembly-line” paradigm obsolete. For instance, the traditional approach has been to rely on a limited number of manufacturing plants to produce all car parts. These parts are manufactured on an assembly line in bulk, and them shipped out and kept in inventory for their final use. (For the most part this is because it is cheaper to stamp out or injection mold a huge number of car parts at one time and then store them.) In contrast, using 3-D additive manufacturing, a car parts manufacturer can produce only those specific parts needed at the time, and presumably eliminate or dramatically reduce inventory as well as waste.
  6. It is much less expensive to install 3-D custom printing equipment than to build production facilities for metal stamping and injection molding. Another way to phrase this is to say that the entry cost for car parts manufacturers is lower if they use 3-D additive manufacturing than if they need to equip a traditional manufacturing plant with tool and die machinery. Presumably, this can lead to the growth of a multitude of small businesses across the country producing car parts on an as-needed basis. Instead of having a “hub” system, with all components being sent out from a central manufacturer, the manufacturing would be based on a “cell” system, with the nearest cell manufacturing the car parts as needed.
  7. This implies a paradigm shift from valuing the car parts themselves to valuing the digital information from which the car parts can be digitally printed. The car parts themselves would become a commodity, but the proprietary intellectual value of the digital manufacturing information would rise dramatically. Other than the decentralization of manufacturing, I think this may be one of the more far-reaching effects of 3-D custom printing, not only for the car industry but for any number of other industries as well.

Custom Printing: Stratasys Prints 3D in Vivid Color

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Stratasys has just redefined 3D custom printing with the introduction of the only 3D equipment that prints in vivid color using multiple materials.

To grasp what this means, let’s pause for a moment and jump back in history to the 1980s, back to the genesis of desktop publishing. After coding type for years on dedicated typesetting machines, I remember how exciting it was to look at a large monitor and see magazine pages laid out in columns in PageMaker. Back then, the monitors displayed only black and white images—literally. There were no levels of gray and no color.

Then someone invented large grayscale monitors that could display shades and tones. And then they invented large color monitors. The images were breathtaking. I’m not sure whether it was their novelty, or their promise of being incredibly useful, but in a short time, these monitors became essential for our work.

Two Articles About the Stratasys 3D Objet500 Connex3

I had a deja vu, a visceral memory of the breakthrough in color desktop publishing in the 80s when I read two articles about Stratasys today. “Stratasys Launches Multi-Material Color 3D Printer” on (by Stephanie Mlot, 1/27/14) and “A 3D Printer Which Combines Colors with Multi-Material 3D Printing” on (by Stratasys, 1/30/14) both explain exactly why the new color 3D custom printing technology completely redefines additive manufacturing.

To reference the Stratasys article (“A 3D Printer Which Combines Colors with Multi-Material 3D Printing”), the Objet500 Connex3 “combines droplets of three base materials to produce parts with virtually unlimited combinations of rigid, flexible, and transparent color materials as well as color digital materials—all in a single press run.”

What this means is that one or a few people with this equipment can quickly produce complete objects without needing to generate, paint, or assemble their component parts. This reduces the time needed to complete a job as well as the staff and materials needed to do it.

The Objet500 Is Ideal for Creating Prototypes

For prototypes, it can’t be beat. Moreover, since the Objet500 uses multiple materials, you can produce prototypes that not only look like the final product but also feel and behave like the real thing. This is because the Objet500 can use “rigid, rubber-like, transparent, and high temperature materials to simulate standard and high temperature engineering plastics” (“A 3D Printer Which Combines Colors with Multi-Material 3D Printing”).

As an example, the article references Trek Bicycle in Wisconsin, a company that uses the Objet500 to produce bicycle chain stay guards and handlebar grips prior to the final production run. Designers can match the “color, durability, and surface finish of end products” (“A 3D Printer Which Combines Colors with Multi-Material 3D Printing”). In this way manufacturers can more accurately assess the products before committing to final production. They can catch flaws and make better-informed design and production decisions.

You Can Print in Multiple Colors

An object can also be produced in any color (or in a number of colors), since the Objet500 uses VeroCyan, VeroMagenta, and VeroYellow to simulate hundreds of hues. When you think of the monochromatic materials used prior to this juncture in 3D custom printing, you can imagine the effectiveness of a prototype that looks exactly like the final product.

Why This Matters

Basically, according to Igal Zeitun (vice president of product marketing and sales operations at Wisconsin’s Trek Bicycle), the Objet500 Connex3 “[enables] you to dream up a product in the morning, and hold it in your hands by the afternoon, with the exact intended color, material properties, and surface finish” (from “Stratasys Launches Multi-Material Color 3D Printer”).

What makes this game-changing is that parts produced on the Objet500 not only look like the final product, but they also feel and behave like the final product. And you can produce them quickly.

Will 3D Printing Transform Shopping?

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

I just read an article in Space Daily (, 1/9/14) that gives a sense of perspective to the new technology of 3D custom printing (or additive manufacturing). The article in the Tech Space section is entitled, “3D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping.”

It points beyond the 3D “buzz” of the moment toward future implications for creating and distributing new products and replacement parts for existing products. In fact, it even envisions a future in which people will print what they need themselves rather than either going to a store or having online vendors ship products to them.

(As a disclaimer, keep in mind that if commercial printing has been traditionally viewed as creating a virtual world on paper—one that engages the reader with words and images—then in my view 3D printing just takes this one step further by populating the physical world with more three-dimensional products. Hence, it’s still custom printing.)

Suggested Uses for 3D Printing

3D printing may actually be more than just a new technology, according to the Space Daily article. It may actually change the way people think about things they want to own. Instead of buying a “thing” from a business, they may just acquire the product “specifications” or “blueprints” (length, height, depth, material, weight) and jet print their own. Gone would be the need for a “store” or a “distribution center” or “warehouse.” Self-reliance would replace dependence on a “supplier.” The conceptual existence of a “thing” as a set of specifications that can be bought and sold would take precedence over the “substance” or “physical existence” of the thing itself.

Here are some uses that “3D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping” suggests for 3D custom printing right now—uses that are in fact already happening.

Prototypes: If you’re short of cash but have a great idea for a product, you can bypass all the start-up costs (buildings, machinery, materials, and labor) and create a prototype yourself (printers of various qualities now range from $497.00 to $6,500.00). (Think back to the DVD players that once cost $1,000.00 but that you can now buy for $60.00. Even the high-end 3D printers will eventually come down in price.)

One-offs: If you live in Africa and you need a single prosthetic hand, you can produce one for a fraction of the usual cost (already done with a MakerBot printer).

Replacement parts: If your home appliances break and need new parts, why buy completely new appliances? (The Space Daily article quotes Andrew Boggeri of Full Spectrum Laser, who referenced “a study indicating that the average US home could save up to $2,000.00 annually by printing their own replacement for 27 commonly broken household items.”) According to the Space Daily article, people can just jet print appliance handles, ball bearings, and gears—or whatever.

Toys: Interestingly enough, the article proposes that “independent toymakers will be among those leading to making 3D printing mainstream.” (Download the digital specs and then use liquid plastic to jet print your kids’ toys. This works well for toymakers who don’t want to invest in buildings and machinery—see “prototypes” above.)

3D Printing Compared to iTunes

Not too many years ago, I used to go to the record store and pick out albums to buy. Later, I went to the music store and chose CDs. But when services like Napster, iTunes, and YouTube came into existence, the whole concept of recorded music changed. I didn’t need to buy a collection of songs in a specific order on a physical medium (a record or CD). I could select songs I liked, buy only what I wanted (not the extra songs on an album that I didn’t absolutely love), and then play the songs in any order. Or I could go to YouTube and see videos of the songs (granted, without owning them). It was a sea change in my approach to recorded music.

3D Printing Compared to the Desktop Publishing Revolution

The same thing happened when I worked in the graphic design field in the early 1980s. First I learned to set type on a Compugraphic and then a Mergenthaler dedicated typesetting machine. Then in 1987 the desktop revolution began. I could set type, do paste-up, draw illustrations, and enhance photos right at my desk. And then—not too many years later—instead of handing off physical mechanicals for the printer to photograph to produce negatives with which to burn printing plates, I could just upload a digital InDesign file for direct laser platesetting.

Again, it was a disruptive technology. In fact, it was so disruptive that some businesses thought they could just buy a Macintosh and have the secretary write, design, and print the in-house newsletter in her/his free time. Photoshop even went from being a noun to being a verb. (In response to a bad photo, someone would say, “Just Photoshop it,” as though a program could turn a snapshot into an award winning image.)

The respect of prior generations for the skills of the type compositor, graphic designer, and photographer dissolved as advertisements suggested you could save all this time and money and have one person (on one salary) do everything in-house.

But People Experience Inertia

Lest we get carried away, people do experience inertia. Most people do not want to change the way they do things. To be a “game changer,” a product must be of superior quality with an intriguing design (think Apple iPod). An experience must fill a deep-seated human need (think Starbucks’ “third place,” a venue for human contact that’s not the home or workspace). Or a technology must be revolutionary (think 3D printing—perhaps). For this, people will change their habits and/or pay a premium.

What Will It Take?

Based on my experience in graphic design during the desktop revolution, my assumption is that quality, ease of workflow, and cost will be the determining factors in whether and to what extent (and in what arenas) 3D printing will gain traction.

In graphic arts, people soon became aware that it took both technical understanding and design skill to create a good printed product. Those producing print books had to understand binding options. Those creating large format print signage had to understand everything from typography to marketing to the effect of environmental conditions on vinyl substrates and signage inks. Levels of skill were required, and this cost money.

Conversely, for a simple print newsletter, a secretary untrained in graphic design could use a template and type new text right into the InDesign document. Not every project had to be stellar. Good enough was good enough.

I think the same thing will happen with 3D custom printing. People will experiment with everything from printing body parts to printing gothic-looking rooms to printing hamburger meat to printing guns. Then some applications will appear to be ideal for the technology and others won’t.

As noted in the Space Daily article, I would agree that replacement parts, one-offs (like the prosthetic hand, the plans for which have been downloaded 55,000 times according to the article), and especially prototypes will thrive in the 3D printing niche. Beyond this, only the future will tell.

Digital Custom Printing: 3D and Inkjet for Fashion Items

Monday, May 20th, 2013

I’m seeing a lot more variety in the use of digital 3D and fabric custom printing within the fashion world, and I find this extremely exciting. It shows that print is more than ink on paper. It also shows that there’s a market for the mass customization afforded by digital custom printing.

I recently read two articles on the subject: “London School of Fashion Exhibition Shows 3D-Printed Fashions” on (4/5/13) and “The Bikini of the Year—RELLECIGA Lace Bikini Series & Vibrant Graphic Printed Bikinis” in The Sacramento Bee (4/26/13).

Three Dimensional Footwear, Eyewear, and Jewelry

The first article displays photos of numerous items made relatively easily with layers of polymer using a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer. The machine looks like a futuristic microwave and retails online for just under $2,800.00 (the starting model).

The article showcases an exhibit curated by the London College of Fashion in their Fashion Space Gallery. To quote from the article, the event “shows designers exploring digital print in fashion and the potential of 3D printing as a tool for design.”

What I find interesting about the images (which include dramatic and elegant–and in some cases especially intricate–shoes, glasses, and jewelry) is that these items can be made inexpensively with control over fine detail and with the promise of unlimited creative variation.

And these items can be created on equipment priced within reach of a small fashion design shop.

Moreover, I think it will expand the awareness of those who attend the show to actually see a MakerBot Replicator 2 producing these items. I know that when I first heard about 3D custom printing (or additive manufacturing), I couldn’t visualize the process of printing layer upon layer of polymer to create three dimensional items. So I think this exhibit will demystify this technology and bring it into common awareness.

Footwear included in the online photo selection includes shoes with intricate cut-outs or webs of polymer material that would be difficult if not impossible to create with any other process. The jewelry also has a spider web-like quality in some cases and a fuller, more detailed and curvilinear quality in others. It seems that the 3D fashion designers are playing to the strengths of digital technology in their creative approach to fashion design.

Printed Bikinis by RELLECIGA

I commented on a similar article about bikinis a few months ago, and I’m now seeing more articles about the same kind of fabric custom printing work. I find this interesting since bikinis need to endure exposure to sun, salt, sand, and water. My assumption, therefore, is that fabric printing materials are being devised that are increasingly durable and able to withstand abuse and abrasion.

After all, the designers need to address stretching issues and waterproofing issues along with comfort and appearance challenges when using nylon as a base material for their bikinis. Clearly, the new digital custom printing technology goes way beyond printing on t-shirts.

“The Bikini of the Year—RELLECIGA Lace Bikini Series & Vibrant Graphic Printed Bikinis” notes the benefits of digital printing, citing the intricacy of the patterns, the vibrant colors, and the option of printing very short runs of a fashion item or even customizing each piece.

This flexibility encourages not only short-run printing but also experimentation and prototyping. And the technology is affordable for small fashion design shops, particularly when compared to the prior technology of custom screen printing. Before the advent of digital fabric printing, a printed fabric run had to be very long (several thousand yards) to justify the expense of making an individual screen for each ink and then printing the inks in sequence on a rotary screen press.

The article goes on to note that unique inks are being developed that are ideally suited for each type of fabric. Rollers feed the fabric through the inkjet or dye-sub presses, and then heat and/or steam cures the ink. In some cases, post process washing and drying are necessary, and some initial fading may occur upon the user’s first washing of the garment. Other than that, the garments wear normally, just like any other fashion item.

Large Format Printing: Printing Bikinis and Houses

Monday, February 18th, 2013

In the last PIE Printing Blog article, I discussed novel uses for 3D custom printing, including the specifications Nokia has made available to enable phone owners to 3D-print their own phone cases, and a stem-cell 3D printing firm called Modern Meadow that 3D prints hamburgers.

Tonight’s articles of note include “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis” (Sacramento Bee, 1/28/13) and “Architect to build home using 3D printer” (CNN, Doug Gross, 1/23/13). Both articles extend the notion of custom printing just a little further.

“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”

I reviewed the lyrics for Brian Hyland’s song released in 1960 about a girl in a bikini. I didn’t see any references to inkjet printing, but it actually seems to be a good way to print this fabric, if you read RELLECIGA’s promotional material.

In prior years, fabric printing had been the domain of rotary screen presses, with each print job comprising several thousand yards of fabric. Considering the time and cost involved in preparing screens for multiple colors, custom screen printing runs have had to be long (in much the same way as time, effort, and capital must go into make-ready for an offset printing run, with unit costs dropping as the run lengths increase).

The first half of the article, “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis,” sounds like most fashion marketing collateral, with references to the “beauty of its design, its intricate handiwork, and the dignified taste of the wearer,” but the tone quickly shifts, and RELLECIGA begins to explain the benefits of inkjet printing the bolts of bikini fabric compared to custom screen printing the fabric.

These benefits include small batch printing, customization, prototyping, and experimenting. The article also notes that “RELLECIGA Digital Fabric Printing Process can reproduce unlimited colors and shades” and that this “reflects the beautiful intricacy made possible by digital printing.” And when there are no screens to prepare for printing, you can print as little as one yard of fabric economically (rather than thousands).

Interestingly enough, as fabric custom printing technology improves (whether it be inkjet or dye sublimation), digital printing is becoming the preferred technology in many cases. With manufacturers producing inks that can maintain color contrast on various fabrics and that are formulated for each type of fiber, and with designers becoming adept at the post-press operations used to cure the ink (such as applying heat or steam, or washing and drying), inkjet printed fabrics can withstand multiple washings and day-to-day wear.

Finally, the article notes that the technology is priced within reach of the “average illustrator.” When technology is inexpensive enough, manufacturing processes can migrate from the factories back into small shops, where quality and uniqueness can prosper.

Print My House

No, really? All it takes is a large 3D printer. The CNN article “Architect to build home using 3D printer” references architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars’ “Landscape House,” comprising “one surface folded in an endless Mobius band.” Basically, when you walk through the house, you can “seamlessly merge indoors and outdoors.”

The house doesn’t come cheap. It will cost between $5 and $6 million to construct. However, there’s already a market for this architect’s work (including museums and individuals).

The crowning achievement will be to produce this house using 3D custom printing technology. Janjaap Ruijssenaars has found a huge aluminum 3D printer that uses sand, which it forms into a solid material similar to marble.

Ruijssenaars will use the 3D printer to produce solid blocks that are approximately 20 feet by 30 feet. He will add fiberglass and concrete reinforcements as he constructs the “Landscape House” from these large blocks. He plans to complete the first house in 2014.

Custom Printing: What to Print on Your 3D Printer

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Real-life stories about 3D custom printing are beginning to resemble science fiction. They’re also beginning to reflect deeper questions about what 3D printing will be good for and in what directions the technology might progress.

I recently read two short articles in Digital Trends about this new technology (“Nokia releases free case designs you print yourself—3D printer sold separately” by Joshua Sherman and “A $300k 3D-printed burger exists, because why not?” by Natt Garun). Both raise compelling issues.

Nokia’s Phone Case

To quote the aforementioned article, “Nokia has released the 3D specs for its Lumina 820 shell, allowing anyone with the right tools to create a 3D case for their phone.”

I think Nokia’s releasing these specs reflects three goals on their part:

  1. To embrace a technology Nokia believes will be significant within the near future.
  2. To present Nokia as being technologically savvy (and thus to increase brand awareness: i.e., marketing).
  3. To have fun (i.e., to position Nokia as being “cool”: i.e., marketing).

I know I sound cynical. But companies don’t spend money to link themselves with a new technology in their customers’ minds unless they believe the technology will prosper. So I see this nod to 3D custom printing by Nokia as portending a bright future for 3D printing.

Moreover, the Digital Trends article by Joshua Sherman notes that:

“In reality, anyone can already make a case for their phone if they really wanted, but the process would be extremely difficult as you’d need to (probably through trial and error) make a case based on your own measurements, and not those from the manufacturer.”

Think about it. Companies (and even entire governments) work hard to keep proprietary information under wraps (including blueprints, videos, and computer code). Acquiring information used to avoid the trial-and-error process of making something yourself dramatically empowers the end user. Being able to print out your own phone case (if you have the reasonably inexpensive printing equipment) changes the landscape of retail sales. Think of all the clear plastic bubble packages containing colorful phone cases that will no longer need to be shipped from the Far East to Target, Best Buy, and Walmart.

The Digital Trends article goes on to say:

“It won’t be long until communities play with the design to make their very own cases with crazy things like E Ink displays built into them, crazy new colors and designs, or something even more amazing.”

In the past, if you acquired digital source code, you could mock-up, duplicate, and distribute a computer program that someone else had toiled countless hours to initially create (they called this industrial espionage). Or, if a government acquired blueprints or video of an enemy’s stealth bomber, it could create its own version of the aircraft and thus level the playing field (or battlefield).

But acquiring freely distributed source code to create an “object” from a custom printing device goes a step further. And given the propensity of hackers to alter computer source code to tailor digital information to their own needs, it is clear that digital specifications for objects like this Nokia phone case will be hacked, altered, and customized.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad. I don’t even think that giving away proprietary information is necessarily bad. It just changes the landscape of retail sales, potentially eliminating brick-and-mortar stores and warehouses, and bringing “object creation” into the home.

After all, in 1987 the Macintosh II and the first generation of Linotronic RIPs and imagesetters brought typesetting and design together, took them out of printing plants and design studios, and placed them squarely on your desktop. Did that mean that every secretary was as good a designer as Herb Lubalin?

And then the Internet made news and classified advertising “want to be free”–until people started to realize that you get what you pay for, and digital information resources started to erect paywalls to charge for their services.

So the essence of my argument is that giving away specifications allowing individuals to produce their own commodities clearly will change commerce.

3D Hamburgers

To quote from the second article, “A $300k 3D printed burger exists, because why not?”:

“In the future, cows and pigs may be roaming free now that we’ve got a 3D printer along the way that’s capable of spitting out slabs of edible meat.”

This quote refers to Modern Meadow, a startup that fuses “the process of bioprinting with edible food.” Granted, this is an expensive process at the moment (it will become less expensive over time, just as other economies of scale have brought down the cost of other manufacturing processes). It is also reminiscent of work scientists have been doing to print actual body organs with specialized stem cells (which is what Modern Meadow does). The new part of the paradigm is the concept of printing food.

The process is mind expanding. Those who condemn the slaughter of animals for food won’t have to settle for soy products like tofu. And algorithms could be written to increase or lessen the amount of fat in a piece of meat.

The Implications

Implications exceed anything your commercial printing supplier can offer. After all, we’ve gone way beyond printing text and images on a page using offset ink, toners, and inkjet ink. We’ve even moved beyond printing physical objects with layer upon layer of liquid plastic. Now we’ve entered into the realm of custom printing body parts that (hopefully) won’t be rejected by your immune system. And printing food that won’t make you sick (and that actually may be nutritious, tasty, and safe). Wow.

Custom Printing: A 3D Printing Primer

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

What does the term “printing” really encompass? What are the boundaries of the word?

I wrote an article over a year ago about a device that dropped water in a pattern from a certain height. You could see an image for a few seconds before the water disappeared. I believe it was a clock, so the image was the changing digital numbers of the time of day.

A few months ago I wrote another article about three-dimensional printers. In fact, I recently saw a video of a 3D printer (similar to an inkjet printer, but spraying layer upon layer of polymer material rather than ink to finally build a three-dimensional object rather than print an image on paper). The process is improving, and prices are dropping. I see references to this transformative technology almost daily.

What Is 3D Custom Printing?

Another term for 3D printing is “additive manufacturing.” It is not new. In fact, the concept has been around since the ’80s. Additive manufacturing is based on the building up of successive layers of material to create an object or a part of an object. Digital information (cross sections of an object rendered in CAD/CAM software) controls the process; hence, the object can be altered from one “print” to the next.

The video I saw on YouTube showed the creation of a baseball bat using a desktop 3D printer. The first part of the film involved its creation; the second part involved using the polymer (or resin) bat to hit objects of increasing size and hardness in order to prove that the additive-manufactured baseball bat had weight and durability.

“Subtractive manufacturing” is the opposite of additive manufacturing. This is the more common technology, and it involves cutting, drilling, milling, and grinding to remove (rather than add) material. In auto manufacturing, for instance, many component parts are “machined” or “tooled” from metal and then assembled into a car.

Granted, subtractive processes can be automated and controlled using digital information as well, and additive processes can include pouring or injecting material (such as molten metal or liquid plastic) into molds.

So What Makes 3D Custom Printing Different?

Whether you’re cutting or drilling metal or wood, you need expensive, heavy machinery. Accountants distribute the cost of the machinery across the thousands of copies produced (usually multiple copies of the same object). You make a lot of metal bolts or car parts, and the cost of the equipment eventually gets distributed evenly (and in small amounts) among thousands of copies of the same thing.

In some ways we can compare this to offset commercial printing, in which a lot of time and money go into the set-up, or make-ready, processes and the unit cost only comes down as you print thousands of copies of the same brochure, flyer, or print book.

This is also true for metal or plastic parts poured or injected into molds. Only after you have made thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies of the same part does the process pay for the creation of the machines that do the work.

But with the newer technology of digitally controlled 3D printing, you have equipment that is comparatively inexpensive to purchase, that will sit on a desktop, and that will produce a different item each time you hit “print.” Changes within the digital programming can immediately yield changes in the output. It’s more like digital printing of a brochure, in which the HP Indigo, iGen, or NexPress can print a different brochure each time it delivers a printed piece.

How Can 3D Printing Be Used?

Wikipedia lists “jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, graphic information systems, and civil engineering,” among other fields. Basically, the list is endless.

Moreover, 3D custom printing can democratize manufacturing. Back in colonial times (in Williamsburg, VA, for instance), “coopers” made barrels from start to finish in their small shops. Gunsmiths made flintlock muskets in the same way, from start to finish, by themselves.

Over the years, to speed up production and spread costs over multiple jobs, money was poured into building factories and heavy equipment. Items started to be made in assembly-line fashion. Granted, there were limited options, but items could be made inexpensively. In direct contrast to this approach, additive manufacturing can now create different parts for everyone just by changing the digital information from which the job is “printed.”

Additive printing holds the promise of bringing manufacturing back into smaller local shops and perhaps even right into your own home. If you need something, you can print it out yourself (or the pieces needed for its assembly). Or you can go down to the corner 3D printer. You don’t need to have parts shipped from China to be assembled in another plant across the country and then shipped to your home or local store. That’s what makes this exciting. That’s democratization of manufacturing.

New Uses for 3D Custom Printing Technology

Prototyping—Companies can quickly produce new items using powdered metals, resins, or polymers, along with casting materials such as sand, and then make necessary changes before committing to an entire production run of the item.

Rapid Manufacturing—In some cases, even the final component parts can be manufactured additively.

Mass Customization—This term has been used to describe infinitely variable, digitally printed marketing materials, in which each direct marketing piece matches the recipient’s personal needs. The same concept can be applied to additive manufacturing, in which customers can request changes to a prototype to meet their own needs.

Medical Items—This is where the technology soars into the realm of science fiction. As of 2012, biotechnology firms have been studying the potential for inkjet printing actual body parts and organs. In this case, layers of living cells would be sprayed onto a gel medium or sugar matrix. Picture a machine that can print a hip replacement. This is actually in process—now.

The Future Is Now

So printing is much more than putting ink or toner on paper. I think there will be a lot to say about 3D printing in future issues of the PIE Blog. So stay tuned. The future is now.


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