Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Desktop Factory

There is a tremendous wave of innovation coming soon. By the time it fully arrives, it could alter the landscape of manufacturing forever. Once the price drops and the technology is "just right", it will empower the average household with the ability to make almost anything.

That wave is 3D printing.

The technology of 3D printers is evolving at a steady rate. Sites have also appeared that allow you to download designs and print them out on your desktop. For example, over at Thingiverse and Shapeways, you can upload your ideas to exchange with others. If you go through their gallery of items, you can find a diverse set of items available.

At first glance, this technology may seem to be somewhere between novelty and something only an engineer would use. Yet imagine a world where you could replace a broken part (on a toy, appliance, or whatever) just by downloading the design into your printer. Right now, low end printers still run around one thousand dollars, but in time the technology will improve and the prices will drop.

A while back, there was even a company that wanted to bring this tech to kids...almost like an Easy Bake oven for 3D printers. I'm not sure what happened to the site, but as of this posting, it still exists.

Other websites such as TinkerCAD are appearing that allow you to do CAD design in your browser.

Why is this significant? It's impressive because it effectively shifts design control to the end user, much like the desktop publishing revolution did years ago. In terms of art, some of the designs out on Thingiverse (and elsewhere) are quite creative.

I've also read that work is being done on creating low-cost plastic shredders that would allow a home user to recycle their plastic bottles for use in their printers. Here are a couple videos here and here that illustrate the state of the industry today and here is a printer production company in case you are interested in acquiring one of these machines.

An intriguing twist on all of this is to have 3D printers replicate themselves. Some of this work can be seen at the RepRap site. I'll cover more about self-replication in a future post, since it applies to several areas at once. In these videos here and here, they give examples of 3-D printers that can replicate their own parts. I have not seen one that can actually assemble itself, however, but progress is being made in that area.

So where will this wave take us? Will large scale manufacturing facilities suddenly disappear? It's doubtful, but this technology will be disruptive in many ways, and there will always be a need for engineers. What may change, however, is the way those needed parts are delivered.

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