The elephant in the room in this week’s Rapid 2011 in Minneapolis is the burgeoning maker movement using cheap 3-D printers, often made from kits that cost as little as $750.
The maker movement has mushroomed overnight and almost seems like a 2011 version of the 1960s New Student Mobilization antiwar movement. Except today’s young movers and shakers aren’t against anything-they are for making stuff. Art objects, jewelry, gadgets, anything that can be made with a cheap three-dimensional printer with a CAD input. The printers quickly spew out small parts in inexpensive plastic. There’s a bit of an anti-corporate feel to some of the “makers”. OK, that goes with the age group. And it contributes to their feeling of empowerment. One article in the New York Times recently even highlighted three makers who moved to a rundown building in Detroit with hopes of revitalizing manufacturing.
Now this isn’t manufacturing on the scale of making a car on an assembly line. These are folks with an idea for something novel, like an iPad holder, that is sold through Web stores. Many are prospering, albeit on a small scale.
Rapid 2011 is the commercial embodiment of the industry, which traces its roots to the invention of stereolithography by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems in 1986 in California. The industry is now substantial, and focuses on the production of rapid prototypes through machines that create three-dimensional models one layer at a time. Bigger versions of the machines are now making production parts for aircraft, medical implants, dental crowns and many other parts.
The industry is back on a growth track this year, but nothing like the maker movement. According to data presented in a keynote address today by industry guru Terry Wohlers, it’s believed that close to 6,000 personal printers were made and sold last year compared to less than 100 four years ago. Wohlers thinks there are more than 10,000 units in place now.
Most of the kits are made by start-ups. But one company that has made the crossover to the maker movement is, ironically, 3D Systems, which last year bought Bits from Bytes, a leader in kit making. 3D Systems participated in last week’s Maker’s Faire in San Mateo, CA, and VP Marketing VP Cathy Lewis told Design News that the company’s booth was swamped, in part because they also brought some higher-end machines that make higher quality parts. ”We are increasing what we deliver in every respect-design support, machines, parts-to professionals, or just a consumer,” said Lewis. She said some of the attendees really focused on the company’s professional 3-D printer, called the V-Flash, because of its capabilities, and some said: “Now I get it.”
For a sense of context, the Bits from Bytes machine costs less than $4,000; the V-Flash sells for around $13,400. At the high end, a stereolithography machine sells for more than $1 million.
A few others in the Rapid community are showing an interest in the maker movement, but most clearly view it as something strange and different.
Wohlers put the subject front and center in his keynote address. He also made it clear he didn’t know quite what to make of it, but he ended the discussion on this note: “This is interesting. It’s throwing a new element into our industry. It’s a good thing.”
Stay tuned. I think the next chapter is going to be very interesting.